“Ace” Romero bounced himself off the ropes on one side of the wrestling ring and Anthony Gaines did the same on another.
The two became projectiles on a collision course.
When their bodies met, Gaines went airborne, soaring over the top rope and farther than he or Romero anticipated.
“He went into the entrance way,” said Romero, 29. “But … if he had went into the crowd, he probably would have fallen probably at least four rows deep. He ended up hitting a cameraman on the way down.”
A video clip of the collision, which took place last summer during a show in New York, quickly went viral. It was dubbed, “The Pounce.”
The Pounce also played a role in Romero, a Thornton Academy graduate, earning a spot on one of the year’s biggest professional wrestling shows – a pay-per-view event Saturday night called Double or Nothing at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It’s the debut event for All Elite Wrestling, a well-funded group that eventually hopes to challenge Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment.
Ace is better known in his hometown as Justin Romero. He was born in Biddeford and grew up in Saco, playing football and lacrosse at Thornton before graduating in 2008.
Thornton football coach Kevin Kezal remembers Romero as an offensive lineman who played as a freshman, then came back as a senior after two years away from the sport.
“He worked really hard and by midseason, we had a couple of injuries and he ended up starting for us,” Kezal said. “He played guard. He had really changed his body. He was a really heavy kid growing up, and by his senior year he was a pretty good player.”
Kezal said he’s followed Romero’s wrestling career.
“I’ve seen him online. He’s got a pretty good character,” Kezal said.
An English teacher at Thornton, Caryn Lasante-Ford, gave Romero’s class an assignment to write about their career goals.
“I was kind of embarrassed, almost,” Romero said. “Everyone else was all, ‘I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a doctor, a fireman, whatever.’ I was like, ‘I want to be a professional wrestler.’ ”
Lasante-Ford, it turned out, is also a wrestling fan, so she was excited to read Romero’s paper.
A short time later, Romero wanted to attend a wrestling camp for beginners in Massachusetts, but his mom had to work so he didn’t have a ride.
Lasante-Ford stepped up.
“My English teacher, she actually picked me up at my house and she drove me down to Massachusetts for my first day of professional wrestling,” Romero said.
Lasante-Ford, now in her 19th year at Thornton, shares Romero’s story with her class each year.
“No matter how ridiculous you might think your dreams are, you owe yourself every opportunity to go after them, and Justin is absolute proof of working the grind and getting it done,” she said.
After high school, Romero began training in Massachusetts – the start of what’s become an 11-year career. Romero eventually trained in Florida and Rhode Island, and now is based in Dayton, Ohio.
“I always thought that to not get stuck (in Maine) I had to leave,” Romero said. “I just wanted to get as much knowledge and training as I could.”
Life as an up-and-coming independent wrestler – someone not signed exclusively to a large national or international company – is a grind.
Training is a large financial and time commitment. Romero had to work full-time jobs and also train for at least 20 hours a week.
In Florida, he worked the overnight shift at a gas station and spent afternoons training. At times he ran out of money and had to return to Maine, get a job, save up and then return to Florida.
After traveling and training all over the East Coast, Romero’s big breakthrough came in Maine, thanks to promoter Randy Carver of Limitless Wrestling.
The two met at a wrestling show in Bangor in 2013.
“He was the first person to really put stock into me,” Romero said.
“He was a really good talent with a lot of potential,” Carver said. “It was at a time, too, when he was putting a lot of time back into himself as a pro wrestler.”
Carver was able to lure high-profile independent wrestlers to Maine for Limitless shows and put them in matches with Romero. It became clear he could hang.
“Especially being a virtual no-name wrestler (who) had no kind of buzz, anything like that … them wrestling me helped my stock rise,” Romero said. “And being able to have good matches with guys who are perceived as being some of the best in the world, which they were, it raised my stock.”
Romero’s stature in the indie wrestling scene began to increase. He became a high-profile wrestler sought after by other promotions – so much so that his travel, whether driving or flying, soon became part of his booking cost.
Last year, Romero got a huge break when he signed a contract with a national promoter, Major League Wrestling.
It’s not an exclusive deal, so he still travels around the country for independent shows. For instance, he’s still a regular at Limitless Wrestling shows, which are usually at the Westbrook Armory or The Portland Club.
“It’s pretty cool because my family gets to come to the show and watch me, and I get to see them. You know, I don’t see them much,” Romero said. “So it’s pretty cool to come back and perform in front of them, and perform in front of an awesome crowd, 500 people packed in an armory.”
While packing for Las Vegas earlier this week, Romero said he couldn’t help but look back.
“It’s pretty crazy to me,” he said. “I’m from Maine, and until recently the Maine wrestling scene wasn’t that great. A lot of people who started wrestling in Maine kind of never got out. It’s pretty hard and pretty rare for someone to get out of Maine and kind of make a name for themselves elsewhere.
“So I feel pretty lucky, I feel pretty blessed, and I’m just excited to be part of the event.”
– Portland Press Herald reporter Steve Craig contributed to this story.