By Sara Flanders
Lawyer by day, Max Petrunya has spent nights brawling under the Homestead Bridge.
Having always dabbled in extreme sports, Steve Schneider’s most recent endeavor left him with a broken skull.
A photography gig opened the door for Daniel Hooven to live out a life-long dream.
These guys all have average lives by day, but spend their nights living out life-long dreams of becoming professional wrestlers, all thanks to the International Wrestling Cartel (IWC) of Pittsburgh.
“Professional wrestling is like a family,” Petrunya said. “We all care for each other and want to see each other succeed.”
The IWC in Pittsburgh helps aspiring wrestlers with training and support through the Iron City Wrestling Academy. All the wrestlers had to get past tryouts, and once they graduated were able to get promotion from and debut with IWC.
“THE GAVEL” DAVID LAWLESS, ESQ.
Max Petrunya, 33, started watching professional wrestling when he was just eight years old. While watching his first Monday Night Raw, Petrunya became an instant fan, and after watching the 123 Kid beat Razor Ramon that night, he knew he wanted to be a professional wrestler someday.
However, that someday didn’t come until about three years ago, so in the meantime, Petrunya has been building his career as a Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Attorney. Currently working for Robert Peirce and Associates, Petrunya will be opening his own law firm, Max Petrunya P.C. Besides his career in law, Petrunya also teaches trial advocacy at Duquesne University School of Law and serves on the Board of Directors for One Day to Remember, a non-profit that helps create lasting memories for children whose parents have cancer or other life-limiting illness.
In 2015, Petrunya made the decision to try out for IWC. Coming in at 6’1” and 230 pounds, Petrunya felt he was big enough and athletic enough to go for it. Although he had done some work with trainer Brandon K to learn some moves, he was still nervous to try out for IWC. Taking what he had learned from Brandon K, including spinning neck-breakers and jumping neck-breakers, Petrunya passed his tryout and started his training with IWC. After his training was complete, Max Petrunya was officially “The Gavel” David Lawless, Esq. His debut show was in Dayton, OH, but Petrunya says that was the most embarrassing show of his career. When walking to the ring he hit his porcelain eagle shield with his gavel but ended up shattering the entire shield and caused the audience to laugh.
“The second I hit the shield with my gavel, the whole thing shattered,” Petrunya said. “Everyone was laughing at me.”
Other than that moment, Petrunya says he hasn’t had many other embarrassing moments, but plenty of unforgettable ones in his career. Some of his top memories include winning the KSWA Heavyweight Championship which took place in Pittsburgh and had an audience of about 300-500. Another was getting to wrestle with his wrestling classmates Duke Davis, Ganon Jones Jr, Shawn Phoenix and Lee Moriarty, alongside their old trainer Brandon K.
“Anytime I get the chance to work with [those guys], it is special,” Petrunya said. “[It’s] one of the top highlights of my career.”
Another big moment for Petrunya was wrestling for IWC Night of the Stars in front of over 1,000 people. His tag team, Lawless and Order, opened the show and shared a locker room with other stars such as Rey Mysterio Jr, Mark Henry, and Jack Swagger. Over the summer Petrunya participated at Brawl Under the Bridge which was a show that took place under the Homestead High Level Bridge. There were over 800 people there and Petrunya said the energy was unlike anything he had experienced before.
“When the match ended, I could hear everyone counting ‘1-2-3!’” Petrunya said. There is absolutely no feeling in the world like having that many people responding to your work in the ring.”
Along with all the highlights there are some negatives to the job. Petrunya says his family and friends support him 100% because they know how passionate he is, but they do worry about him getting hurt, which does happen. He has gone through a table unto concrete and badly bruised his tailbone and had to see a chiropractor for three weeks, and more recently, got his head split open by a steel chair.
“I finished the match,” Petrunya said. “But had to go to the ER to get three staples in my head.”
Through it all, Petrunya loves the bonds he has found in professional wrestling. He feels the culture is like that of a family because the care and trust everyone has for each other. He says they all want to see each other succeed.
“When you are putting your trust in your opponent to take care of your body, you develop a deep bond with them,” Petrunya said.
Steve Schneider, 27, although slightly younger has been involved in the wrestling scene since 2003. Schneider was not allowed to watch wrestling when he was growing up because of the mature content. In 2001, when he was a little bit older, his parents allowed him to watch. He said he instantly was obsessed because he had always been involved with extreme sports such as skating, BMX, and motocross. Once he saw his first show, he knew he wanted to be a professional wrestler.
“It wasn’t until March 2003 when I attended my first IWC show did I realize my dream was possible,” Schneider said.
Schneider, who works various retail jobs, officially started training in 2015 at Pro Wrestling eXpress (PWX). His tryout was more about his physical and mental health than wrestling skills. He says he was asked to run 10 laps around the building, do 120 squats, 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups in 20 minutes. He was still healing from a torn rotator cuff at the time so came up a little short on his push-ups, but they could see how bad he wanted it and passed him. In January 2016, 5’5” and 185-pound Steve Schneider became Shawn Phoenix.
Schneider’s highest moment of his career so far was his IWC debut back in August. He says it was a really big moment for him because he had grown up following IWC, so he wanted to be sure he was ready and would be welcomed by the fans with open arms.
“I got a great reception,” Schneider said. “I will never forget that.”
The lowest moment of Schneider’s career resulted in a serious injury. A stunt went wrong, and he ended up with a broken skull, a subdural hematoma, a dislocated jaw and broken ear bones. He is currently still recovering from those injuries.
Schneider says one of the craziest things he has seen is a wrestler getting drunk, punching the promoter, and getting the cops called in. He says rivalries and such are usually self-contained within one company and compares them with comic books.
“[There are] different stories happening at different places,” Schneider said. “[It’s] almost like different universes.”
As with most wrestlers, Schneider’s family doesn’t love that he wrestles because they worry about his safety and were never into the sport to begin with. But he says they give him the support he needs. He also gets endless support from his friends.
“My friends love that I followed my dreams,” Schneider said. “They know I’ve been chasing this since I was 10.”
Daniel Hooven, 34, started watching professional wrestling when he was around 6. His inspiration came from a wrestler named Tazz who was smaller than most other wrestlers but still became a huge star. In 2014, Hooven got involved in the local professional wrestling scene with a photography gig, and after seeing it up close and seeing that different weight classes were accepted, his 5’7” and 206-pound self decided to take the leap.
“When I was growing up you had no chance to be a wrestler or make it big unless you were at least 6ft and 250 pounds,” Hooven said. “If I knew that the WWE would be signing people of all sizes I would have started younger.”
Hooven currently works as a marketing manager for an international standards and publication organization but has previously been involved in reality TV. He competed on and won the series premiere of the Travel Channel’s Paranormal Challenge in 2011, and he was the lead investigator on Haunted Encounters: Face to Face which was a paranormal reality show on A&E in 2012. Also in 2012, he was profiled on the “Frat House Phantom” episode of Syfy’s School Spirits.
“Fun fact, ROH Superstar Shane Taylor and IWC Owner Justin Plummer were also profiled on the SyFy show as well,” Hooven said.
After passing his tryout and training with IWC, Hooven officially debuted as Fuji Nakamura in 2016. Soon after his debut he ended up snapping his ankle but says he doesn’t consider injuries as lows in his career, he just enjoys wrestling for what it is.
His favorite memory so far is competing in the Steel Cage Match in 2017. Hooven had had a long-standing feud with a giant wrestler named Bulk Nasty, weighing in at 301 pounds and twice his size. He was suffering from a torn MCL at the time and wasn’t as agile as usual, but though the match told a good story and would set up the apex of his feud with Bulk Nasty. He says the experience was surreal and exciting, but also nerve-wracking with the addition of the steel cage.
Hooven ended up losing the match after hitting his head and blacking out. He had to be helped off the stage and later found out he had a concussion. He says even with that, he is still grateful he had the opportunity.
“Body-slamming a giant was always on my bucket list,” Hooven said. “To do it in a steel cage made it special.”
Hooven says the wrestling culture is not as Rockstar-ish as people think it is. Unlike how it is portrayed in the media, it is tame and more like a fraternity. He says he would simply describe it as family. Which makes it a great support system since his own family doesn’t quite get it. He says they don’t understand wrestling but try to support his dreams.
“[They] like that I am doing what I wanted to as a kid,” Hooven said.
When asked what their ultimate goal in wrestling was, all of the guys shared a similar answer- and it wasn’t fame and fortune.
“[My goal is] to have fun, to entertain people, and to help the companies I work for and the people I wrestle with get better,” Petrunya said.
“My ultimate goal is a simple one,” Schneider said. “To continue to travel all over, make friends, make money, and have fun.”
“[My goal is] to contribute in any way I can and help those around me,” Hooven said.