In the middle of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains lies the New River Valley, an area that has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. In just the past year, the unemployment rate here has doubled.
Troy Long is part of that statistic. He lost his $60,000-a-year job building Volvo trucks in Shawsville, Va., one year ago. He has been scraping by ever since and has not looked back, instead focusing entirely on his dream career: professional wrestling.
In the ring, he is "Sergeant Long," a character based on his time as sergeant in the U.S. military. Long wears black shorts, a camouflage vest, and recently had his wrestling name tattooed across his stomach.
Waving an American flag at the start of each match, he plays a "good guy" body slamming the "bad guys."
"Some people take drugs, some people drink to get a fix or a high -- this is my high," Long says with a grin.
The 36-year-old hopes that someday that "high" will make him rich. For now, the new job barely pays the bills, so he does odd jobs to make ends meet. With a young son and growing bills, money has been tight.
Still, he has no regrets. "This is about somebody going after what they've always wanted to be, I'm living my dream. And I don't care if I'm dirt poor in the process, it doesn't matter to me. Because I don't base my life on material stuff," he says.
Long trains at Boogie's Pro-Wrestling camp, run by hall of famer Jimmy "the Boogie Woogie Man" Valiant.
Commitment to Sport Drives Aspiring Wrestlers
At 67, Valiant has been hooked on professional wrestling since his very first match 47 years ago.
"I had over 10,000 professional wrestling matches and the very first match that I had, it was such a high, you know, walking through that crowd and getting in that ring and hearing the boos and the hisses and, of course, the ovations, but you never lose that," he says.
Another sign of his commitment to the sport? Valiant has wrestling boots tattooed to his feet.
"These are wrestling boots tattooed, actually wrestling boots with the laces and all," he says pointing to his body art, "And when I do go to the big ring in the sky, I will go with my wrestling boots on."
Despite the tough economy, Boogie's business is booming.
"I have a lot of kids right now, you know, and they'll do anything to come and train. They'll sell scrap metal, they'll sell their hubcaps, they'll do anything they have to do," he says. "I don't care what kind of trouble, if they just lost their job, if they're fighting with their missus. They come in here, they forget about everything," he says.
Boogie is a mentor to these aspiring wrestlers. "Making their dream come true, and this is how it starts," says Valiant.
Just like Long, many of the men are out of work and now pursue a dream of making it big. They pack up their gear and travel countless miles every weekend to bring their show to small towns in North Carolina, Virginia and the surrounding region.
"We are entertainers. It's just like you going to the movie theater. You're paying to see a show. It's the same thing with us. We're putting on a show," explains Long.
Unfortunately, that showmanship isn't exactly lucrative. The wrestlers often walk away with just $20. Long says a year ago he definitely had more money in his wallet but today he is "100 times happier."
"A year ago, I was clearing about $1,000 a week, there wasn't nothing I couldn't do. If I saw something I wanted to buy, hey I didn't worry about it, I just bought it. And now I've learned how to rethink how to spend my money, what's most important. And right now, other than my son, being a wrestler is the most important thing in my life."
It's also physically demanding. Long says he regularly comes home with cuts, welts and bruises -- mostly the result of banging into the steel cables that line the ring.
With his pay slowly increasing -- he recently got paid $80 for one show -- Long is optimistic about his economic prospects. "Hopefully, one day that's all I'll have to do, I won't have to have a 'real job,' as Boogie calls it," he says.
He's equally sanguine about his current hardship. "Everything happens for a reason and I'm a firm believer in that. And if I hadn't lost my job, hadn't lost my truck, all the things that I thought meant something to me, I wouldn't be living my dream right now."