WRESTLEMANIA WEEK: A Philly public-school teacher helped Drew Gulak become a professional wrestler and a WWE mainstay (Inquirer.com)

Posted on 4/01/124 by Chuck Langermann

The King Kong Bundy picture resting on the chalkboard inside
the elementary school science class had nothing to do with
the periodic table, plate tectonics, or the structure of an

“It had nothing to do with professional teaching and the
curriculum that we had to follow,” said Jack Zabarsky, who
taught for 35 years in the School District of Philadelphia
before retiring in 2000.

The 8x10 photo of Bundy — a larger-than-life wrestling star
in the 1980s and 1990s who grew up in South Jersey, was a
small way for Zabarsky to acknowledge his love of
professional wrestling. It was his escape after he left the

“When you teach school, you have to have something that’s a
different part of your life,” Zabarsky said.

The picture was enough to catch the attention of one of
Zabarsky’s students. Drew Gulak, like many kids in the late
1990s, loved wrestling. He and his younger brother slammed
each other around their house in Fox Chase, pretending to be
the stars they watched on TV.

And now he learned his teacher was a fan. Gulak and Zabarsky
bonded over wrestling. The teacher at Greenberg Elementary
in Bustleton told Gulak about the wrestling he watched on
the weekends in an old South Philly freight house under I-

» READ MORE: Extreme Championship Wrestling once tried to
take on WWE. Its story begins in a Philly pawn shop.

“He would tell me about these shows where guys were flying
through tables and flying through glass and using barbed
wire,” Gulak said. “They’re lighting each other on fire and
cursing up a storm. He said, ‘You have to check it out.’ ”

Gulak was hooked and needed to see it for himself. His
mother signed off and Zabarsky picked up Gulak and his
brother, Rory, and drove them to Swanson and Ritner Streets.
They sat in the stands, cheered for the heroes, booed the
villains, and took pieces of broken tables back to school to
show the other kids.

“That was my entry into pro wrestling,” Gulak said.

A teacher

Gulak stood on a rope in the wrestling ring and shouted out
instructions. A night earlier, he wrestled on TV in Florida.
Now he was instructing two 20-something wrestlers in
Kensington to do an Irish whip.

He signed with WWE in 2016 and appears weekly on NXT, a
cable TV show meant to be a proving ground for the next crop
of pro wrestling stars. He is expected to have a role on
Saturday afternoon at WWE’s NXT Stand and Deliver at the
Wells Fargo Center, a few hours before WrestleMania takes
over Lincoln Financial Field for the first of two nights of
wrestling in front of 70,000 fans.

The Northeast Philly native now lives near Orlando but flies
to Philly every week to teach at CatchPoint, the wrestling
school he opened last summer just a few blocks from the El
in Kensington. That’s why he was on the turnbuckle giving
instructions to two 20-somethings who were running out gas.

The 36-year-old Gulak’s career — perhaps the longest in WWE
by a Philly native — has been impacted by teachers. First,
there was Zabarsky. Next there was Mark McCready, a
Northeast High chemistry teacher who recruited Gulak and his
other buddies in the magnet program — “It was a bunch of us
nerds,” Gulak said — to join the wrestling team. They warmed
up for practice by running up and down nine flights of steps
with bricks in their hands. It was nuts, Gulak said.

Then there were professional wrestlers like Sabian, Joker,
Zandig, Nick Berk, Trent Acid, and Nick Gage who befriended
Gulak and his brother when they started hanging around the
CZW shows. There were Chris Hero and Mike Quackenbush, two
stars of the independent wrestling scene who showed Gulak
the ropes. And there were the countless others he shared the
ring with or studied from the stands.

Now he’s the teacher, hosting classes inside a converted
warehouse on East Westmoreland Street. Gulak’s classroom has
a 20-foot by 20-foot ring that is the same quality used by
WWE. A cast of students comes through the door to learn from
one of WWE’s best tacticians.

Even the WWE has used Gulak to teach. Not only does he train
new recruits at their Performance Center in Florida, but
he’s the one who has to break in the celebrities who get in
the ring like sports-talker Pat McAfee and rapper Bad Bunny.
And he does it all while maintaining his own in-ring career.

“At first it was just me having to fill it and teach people
because there was no one else to teach,” Gulak said of his
start years ago as a trainer. “I would just yell at people.
I knew what I was talking about, but I would just yell at
them if they didn’t do something right. Then one day I
realized, ‘Why am I yelling at people? Who am I? It’s not
nice. It’s not fair.’ Ever since then, I’ve been much
better. I’m patient. I want this place to be a good

His school in Kensington is open to everyone from novices
who have no idea how to run the ropes to trained
professionals who want to sharpen their skills. CatchPoint
has two levels: fundamentals and foundations. After students
complete the six-week fundamentals course, they’ll have
their first matches and be fit to work for other wrestling

“This is the most positive wrestling school I’ve ever been
to, by far,” said Robby Gailor, who wrestles as Curt
Robinson. “I feel like we have a zero-tolerance rule for
negativity. A lot of schools might try to bring you down.
This is like-minded people all getting together and doing
something that’s so cool. There’s nothing cooler than this.
It’s a live-action performance play and there’s one take.”

A suspension

Gulak was enamored by the shows Zabarsky took him to and
soon realized that the wrestlers he cheered for were not
much older than he was. Maybe he could join the show. He was
soon helping to build the ring, cleaning up broken glass,
and stacking folding chairs when the night was over. Gulak
was doing anything he could to be a part of it. He started
training at CZW’s school when he was just 15 years old.

Gulak finished the school day at Northeast High, went to
wrestling practice, and then drove through rush-hour traffic
for his pro-wrestling lessons in Deptford. The days were
long, but Gulak didn’t mind. He was chasing a dream.

“It enriched me,” he said. “It was such a good experience.
It was fun and kept reinforcing my passion and to do what I
do. I take that with me every time I breathe when I’m at

He was booked to wrestle his first match in April 2005 on a
CZW show in Northeast High’s basketball gym. The promoter
asked Gulak to help sell tickets, so he set up a table in
the cafeteria and hustled his friends. He told his art
teacher before class started that he would have to step out
to take a phone call. The show’s promoter would be calling.
The teacher said it was fine.

“I got the call, stepped out, and started talking to him,”
Gulak said. “The teacher comes out and says, ‘Drew put your
phone away.’ I said, ‘I’ll be a second. You said I could.’
She said, ‘Drew put it away. I’m not going to tell you
again.’ I said, ‘OK. Let me say goodbye.’ She said, ‘You’re
getting suspended.’ It was very weird.”

Gulak, part of the school’s magnet program, spent the next
three days in a trailer as part of an in-school suspension.
But the wrestling show went on and he made his professional
debut as part of a tag-team match. He wore his Northeast
High wrestling singlet and his buddies cheered from the
bleachers as he won the match. The suspension was worth it.

“It was absolutely worth it,” he said. “But I wish I didn’t
have a crazy teacher or that I walked away quicker.”

Finding his style

Gulak fell in love with the extreme wrestling he watched in
South Philly — “These freakin’ crazy, wild athletes in front
of this bloodthirsty Philly crowd,” Gulak said — but his own
style is old-school, technical wrestling.

“I got to the ECW Arena one day early for practice and the
bleachers were put out,” Gulak said. “Chris Hero was sitting
by himself on the bleachers watching DVDs of old World of
Sport wrestling. Guys like Johnny Saint and Steve Grey. I
sat next to him and watched this and said, ‘Whoa. They treat
this completely like a sport. Very cut and dry.’ It comes
from that moment. I try to focus on making everything as
realistic as possible.”

Gulak wrestles without knee pads in tights and tall boots.
He looks like one of the British wrestlers he watched with
Hero. And he performs like them as every maneuver has
meaning. Another teacher helped him perfect it.

“We had [Elite Pro Wrestling’s] Les Thatcher come to the CZW
school,” Gulak said. “He’s from the era where no one called
anything beforehand and everything was called in the ring.
Good guys and bad guys had separate locker rooms. If you
told the fans this was phony in any way, you were kicked out
of the business forever. Hearing him talk reinforced my
mindset and gave me even more confidence to improve.”

Gulak spent years in the independent scene before signing
with WWE. He has appeared on Raw and SmackDown — the
company’s flagship TV shows — and has wrestled on pay-per-
view in front of 60,000 fans. In a business in which
longevity is rare, Gulak has carved a role with the
industry’s leader.

“The WWE is acknowledging the perfection of pro wrestling
within guys and they’re giving them the spot,” said Bill
Posada, who wrestled in CZW as Joker and assists Gulak at
CatchPoint. “They need to show the world that it’s more than
oily muscles and a bunch of grunting. There’s technique
involved. It’s fluid. I try to explain to people about pro
wrestling and they say it’s fake. So I say look at a
performance like Cirque du Soleil. It’s choreographed
because that’s how you tell the story, but all the
acrobatics, all the dancing is all real. That’s all talent.
Wrestling is the same thing.

“All the hard work he’s done and getting to where he is now.
That’s all him. It’s all work. Nonstop. Hustle. Grind. Doing
shows every weekend. Traveling to different territories to
work at different promotions. Building his name and maturing
throughout. He worked his [butt] off.”

Zabarsky, 78, no longer watches wrestling like he used to
and he stopped going to shows in South Philly. But he knows
what Gulak is up to and has watched him on TV. Sometimes
Zabarsky will be in a grocery store near his home in
Northeast Philly and an adult will stop him, asking if he
was his or her elementary-school teacher. Some remember
Zabarsky for the lessons he taught. Or the time he took them
to City Hall. Some remember him for the King Kong Bundy
photo, the trips to South Philly, and how a teacher
introduced a kid to a career.

“I don’t think Jack picked me up and said, ‘He’s going to be
a future WWE wrestler,’ ” Gulak said. “I think it was just
like, ‘They like wrestling. These are nice kids. Hopefully
they have a nice future. I like mentoring people, so why not
take them to a show?’ ”

Zabarsky helped Gulak find a path to chase his dream.
Eventually, Gulak became a star. And now he is a teacher
just like the guy who had a King Kong Bundy photo on his

“The profession is a wonderful thing to be in,” Zabarsky
said. “You work with kids and hopefully you can direct them
to their greatest potential later on in life. When they
remember, it’s a very good feeling.”

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