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    Now that’s rasslin’

    [Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
    Bruce "Agent Steele" Santee grimaces as he struggles to free himself from the grip of wrestler Billy Fives, who is not pictured. Santee has a banking job if wrestling doesn't work out. Referee Jim Bragg is at left.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 21, 2002

    ST. PETERSBURG -- On a steamy summer night at the pro wrestling matches, sweat spatters on the audience as huge men bash each other on the head with metal folding chairs.

    Lou Rossetti and his son Christopher, 8, of St. Petersburg enjoy IPW Hardcore Wrestling and attended their first match in person back in August. Both were pleased with the action in St. Petersburg. "We'll come back," Lou Rossetti said.
    In one match, a muscled creature named Axis wipes blood from his forehead, licks it off his palm and grins maniacally. In another match, an unlucky wrestler is slammed down onto hundreds of metal tacks. The frenzied crowd chants something unprintable, over and over and over again.

    It's Saturday night inside a St. Petersburg warehouse dubbed "The Florida WrestlePlex." It's time for three hours of choreographed insanity.

    "It's a little bit crazy, but it's good, clean fun," said 48-year-old Bob Urquhart of Tampa, one of many diehard fans in the seats. "You either like it or you don't."

    This is bargain-basement, minor-league professional wrestling. This is IPW Hardcore Wrestling, a homegrown Tampa Bay business unlike any other.

    All the pain and sweat and mayhem is supplied by entry-level pro wrestlers -- working stiffs who have day jobs.

    Monday through Friday, they're cashiers or computer technicians or customer service representatives. Saturday nights, they don masks and tights and comic-book names like Jet Jaguar, Ricky Casanova, Uptown Frankie Capone, the Cuban Assassin, the Flying Elvises.

    They fly around the ring, drop-kicking and body-slamming each other. Of course it's fake, but it's real enough to cause concussions and broken bones.

    Anthony Vandal, top right, of Boca Raton stomps on Michael Bollea of Tampa while referee Jim Bragg of Nashville, Tenn., moves in to intervene.

    IPW's wrestlers work for peanuts. They're all trying to make it to the big time, to World Wrestling Entertainment, the company that produces the TV shows Smackdown and Raw, where millionaire stars like the Rock have their own action figures, movie roles and bestselling books.

    "We have no illusions about challenging the WWE," said one of IPW's founders, Devin Nash. "We know our guys aren't making any money, but the idea is to get experience. This is where you start. We have several guys who are ready for the next step."

    IPW, Independent Professional Wrestling, is one of a handful of such groups scattered around Florida. It's the creation of Nash, 45, a wrestler, and Ron Niemi, 32, a promoter. They also have day jobs.

    They're prolific. They have an Internet site, a radio show, a roster of 55 wrestlers and a wrestling school where amateurs learn the ropes. They create IPW's characters and plotlines. They have IPW events twice a month and Christian wrestling once a month at the WrestlePlex, as well as occasional events in Tampa and around the state.

    Their TV show, IPW Hardcore Recap, airs at 2 a.m. Saturday on UPN 44. Their next goal is to get wider exposure on the Sunshine Network.

    They like to call the WrestlePlex an intimate venue. The former GTE warehouse off U.S. 19 is small, so the audience's 250 folding chairs are crammed right around the ring. Even though no alcohol is served, the wrestlers and fans pelt each other with passionate verbal abuse.

    A recent live IPW show had 11 matches involving three dozen characters. It kicked off with a tag team of villain wrestlers, Hunk Golden and Kryptonite, who had flown here from California on their own dime just to get videos of themselves performing on IPW's TV show.

    "Indy wrestling is all about exposure, like being in a garage band. You play wherever you can," said a third Californian, 20-year-old Sal Tavakoli, who fights as Sacred Dragon. His plane ticket cost $350.

    After the first match, a black-clad villain named Cannon charged the ring and beat a wrestler with a metal chair for a surprisingly long time.

    Cannon is part of an IPW villain faction called the Double Deuces. Cannon is also Pete Conlon, 31, of Orlando, who's going to school to be an insurance claims adjuster.

    "I let Cannon out on weekends," Conlon said cheerfully in the wrestlers' locker room.

    One match reached new levels of depravity.

    A wrestler named Prime Evil, wearing a black bodysuit, dog collar and mask, was led out on a leash by his thong-wearing mistress. During the match, he ripped open a stuffed animal that was -- surprise! -- full of tacks that spilled all over the ring. A huge cheer went up as Prime Evil and his opponent grappled and rolled around on the tacks.

    One of IPW's biggest wrestlers is a fierce-looking, shaven-headed muscleman named Axis who fights like a demon. Axis is Jonathan Davis, 30, of Tampa, who holds bachelor's degrees in classical civilizations and humanities from Florida State University.

    "Wrestling is a spiritual thing, a cathartic ritual. I channel negativity and release it," Davis said. "I know it sounds campy, but it's similar to what a musician experiences onstage. You're transcending your normal, mundane, everyday existence."

    Not all the wrestlers are huge; the smaller, nimbler ones are called cruiserweights. One of them, a masked wrestler named Seijin Akki, knocked his opponent out of the ring and then leaped acrobatically over the top rope, landing on his foe. The crowd went nuts.

    Seijin Akki is Mike Kist, 18, a Publix cashier and Seminole High School senior whose goal is to wrestle in Japan. Plenty of American wrestlers find work overseas.

    The current IPW champion is a chiseled 6-foot-3, 240-pounder named Agent Steele. He's Bruce Santee, 23, a Lakewood High School graduate who answers customers' mail at Chase Manhattan Bank. If wrestling doesn't work out, he's got that to fall back on.

    "Either way, I'm set," he said.

    At the end of the night, wrestlers mingled in the dark parking lot with fans who had yelled themselves hoarse. The two IPW promoters recalled the time their wrestling ring broke. The 4-by-12 pieces of timber supporting the mat just gave out.

    "We had the last three matches outside," Nash said. "We had 300-pound guys rolling around on the asphalt. The crowd loved it."

    * * *

    Upcoming IPW events take place Oct. 2 at the Dallas Bull country bar, 8224 U.S. 301 N in Tampa; Oct. 11 at the Florida WrestlePlex, 4055 35th St. N in St. Petersburg, (727) 526-6778; Nov. 2 at Lealman Discovery School, and 4100 35th St. N in St. Petersburg. WrestlePlex tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. IPW's Web site is

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