Peter Barberino braced himself for the hit against the ropes.
He wasn’t a rookie. Hitting the ropes with his ribs was a rookie move. He knew to let his back protect him, to take the brunt of the force.
Dressed in his red gear with “PJB” written across the back and kicking guards with “I-T-F’in-G” (I’m That Fucking Guy) stitched to them, the IU senior was in the ring on Sept. 24 at the National Guard Armory against Austin Manix, a wrestler seemingly disliked among the Bloomington crowd at the Infinity Pro Wrestling event.
Manix caught PJB off the ropes, picked him up and threw him to the ground.
Baberino, known in the wrestling world as PJB, hit the mat on his back.
A crash of body against cushioned two-by-fours rang through the auxiliary gym, and boos filled the Saturday night air.
PJB squeezed his eyes shut as he squirmed on his back.
Upon graduating in May, PJB plans to move to Tampa, Fla., to train with Florida
Until then, he has school, a job, an internship and a volunteer coaching position that takes up the time he doesn’t spend training for wrestling.
His right pointer finger pressed to his ear, PJB’s blue eyes darted around the crowded bar. He was like a secret service agent in search of a problem. The people in his ear were in constant communication.
It was about 1 a.m. on a Friday at Kilroy’s Sports. The line outside was wrapped around the building, and the downstairs crowd grew for the next hour until it moved to the upstairs dance floor.
PJB had traded in his red gear and kicking guards for a pair of jeans, a neon green Sports sweatshirt and a black Yankees hat.
“See that girl in the beige sweater?” PJB asked. “She’s not 21, and our bouncers know it. Oh, there she goes, and so does her friend.”
Patrons belted Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as PJB picked up empty glasses.
PJB was nothing to the vodka-shooting students.
As drinks were poured, those students liked to think they could become friends with him to get away with more. They had no idea that underneath that baggy sweatshirt is a body that lifts weights five times a week, a body that could lift them up and carry them out like a lumberjack carrying a bundle of twigs. And the students had no idea he’s a wrestler who could take them down in a half-second.
“They don’t pay me enough to talk to them,” PJB said. “But as soon as one of them begins to touch me, I tell them it’s time to go.”
By 1:39 a.m., PJB had protected the bar against a group of drunks that jokingly threw drinks across the table and another who decided to lay down on one of the bar’s benches.
By 1:46 a.m., PJB slowed his patrol as he helped the bar backs with drinks left behind. There was no line outside, and a majority of the crowd had moved to the upstairs dance floor.
“Last drinks will be served at 2:30 a.m., so it will be an earlier night than when I bar back,” PJB said. “Then, I’m not done ‘til 5 in the morning.”
The schedule eventually wore on PJB. Weeks later, he quit Sports to focus on classes, wrestling and being Coach Peej.
The back of his red St. Charles football cap sported his name stitched in the back: Coach PJ.
“We like to call him Peej,” one of PJB’s eighth-grade football players said as he giggled.
“Can we call you Peej?” another chimed.
“You can call me Coach,” PJB said with a stern smile.
“OK, Coach ... Peej,” the first football player said as he ran away with his teammate to listen to their duties for the Oklahoma drill.
PJB spent every Tuesday through Friday this fall teaching defense to a group of middle school students for the St. Charles football team. He had them running plays and hitting the tackling sled with two hands.
The young boys grunted, each seemingly louder in what seemed to become a
“We like to grunt because it makes PJ laugh,” said Jon-Luke, one of his players. “Plus, it makes us sound tougher.”
Near the end of practice, when they felt like being giggly instead of tough, a group of defenders asked PJB if he’d buy cookie dough.
“I’ll buy it if your moms make the dough into cookies for me,” PJB teased them. “What types are you selling?”
“Well, there’s two types,” the first seller said.
“Yeah, the one that makes you fat and the other that makes you fit,” the second seller said.
“I think I need the one that makes me fit,” PJB said. He’s on a diet that typically consists of five to six small meals, multivitamins and protein drinks.
The third seller ran up to him and poked his left bicep. “Yeah, Coach Peej. We’ll get you 30 tubs.”
They think he’s just a muscular college kid.
They have no idea he’s a professional wrestler.
PJB rolled to his side on the mat.
He knows every time he’s dropped to the mat from six feet or higher, it’s like getting into a car crash at 25 miles per hour.
It’s a price he’s willing to pay.
He knows he’s not going to make millions on the mat. But he found his passion for wrestling when he was growing up watching it on the couch with his dad.
“It’s a dream to make it to the WWE,” PJB said. “Wrestling has just always been in my life in some shape or form.”
At Sports and St. Charles, they thought PJB’s size was something they could test. In high school, he thought his stature wouldn’t would allow him to make a career in professional wrestling.
He stood 5-foot-10-inches and weighed only 150 pounds when he graduated Lakeshore High School in 2003.
He realized through eating and weightlifting he could become bigger. He turned
professional in June 2010.
PJB is now 6-foot-1-inch. His weight is 220, and his move to Tampa, Fla., is more than a big opportunity for his career. It’s a chance for him to make a difference.
As Manix stood looking above PJB, a 6-foot injured running back slid through the ropes to protect his friend in the match. Manix turned around, and IU football’s injured running back Darius Willis leapt at him and took Manix down in a flying shoulder tackle.
PJB rose to his feet as Manix and Willis stood. PJB walked toward Manix as he put his right arm between his legs and lifted him to his right shoulder before throwing him to the mat to end the match with his signature move, All She Wrote.
PJB will wrestle Manix again at an Infinity Pro Wrestling event at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Bloomington National Guard Armory.
“I want to be able to help influence kids and be there for people,” PJB said. “Right now if I were to go to see kids that have cancer, they wouldn’t know me. If you make it in wrestling, you can go do that kind of stuff, and I will be able to give back.”