Sure the bouts are scripted, but wrestlers on independent circuits still take big risks for a shot at the dream.
By THOMAS LAKE
Published November 9, 2006
NEW PORT RICHEY
Inside the black ropes, as beer flows and tobacco burns, as men jeer and women leer, a Spandex-clad warrior called David Mercury falls to the mat and pins his foe.
The referee starts counting.
Three would mean victory. But three never comes. Because we have entered what, if this were an actual sport, would be known as the Longest Second in All of Sports.
It is a moment when time curves away from its forward march. We are stuck here at 2.999999 until Mercury's opponent can throw him off and spring to his feet.
The referee, who also manages a crematory, will let the third second hang in the smoky air as long as need be. To do otherwise would be sort of like an actor deviating from the script.
No - it would be identical.
Defeat has not been ordained for Mercury's opponent, a young pugilist who calls himself Eddie Taurus. And so Taurus rises, and the fans roar, and he strikes down Mercury and walks off triumphant.
No humans have been permanently harmed in the production of this show. But in American Combat Wrestling, one of several independent wrestling circuits in the Tampa Bay area, the writhing and bellowing are not always fake.
On this Tuesday night at the Bourbon Street nightclub off U.S. 19, we will see Rod Steel, who says he has survived eight concussions and a dislocated collarbone.
We will see Amy Love, a woman known less for her zebra-print bikini than for the time she broke her kneecap and still finished the match.
We will see Sideshow, a pierced and snarling beast who estimates his wrestling injuries have put him in $24,000 worth of delinquent hospital debt.
These performers wager flesh and bone for a minuscule chance to join the pampered gladiators on cable television. But their pay does not correlate with their risk: Sideshow, whose real name is Mike Hannigan, says wrestlers on independent circuits work for $20 to $50 a match - if they get paid at all.
The wild men and women of ACW have families and children and day jobs. By night they enter a world of illusion.
They pretend to hate each other, but many are friends.
They pose as competitive athletes, but they do not compete.
They are actors, only tougher. And they do all their own stunts.
A little too real
Professional wrestling appeals to the masses by leavening choreography with drops of hot blood. It is not a new phenomenon, nor is the desire to expose the prevarication at its core.
In 1984, a daring young reporter named John Stossel did a segment on wrestling for the ABC newsmagazine 20/20. Its most memorable moment, recently posted on the Web site YouTube, came when he confronted David Schultz, a wrestler with the stage name Dr. D.
"Is this a good business?" Stossel asked.
Schultz sneered. His neck resembled a telephone pole.
"Yeah," he said, "it's a good business. I wouldn' be in it if it wadn't.
"Why is it a good business?"
"Because only the tough sa-vaahv. That's the reas'n you ain't in it. And this punk hold'n the camera - reas'n he ain't in it. Reas'n these rednecks out here ain't in it. Because it's a tough business."
He puffed out his chest.
"That's terrific," Stossel said.
"What?" Schultz demanded. "Is that all you got?
It was not.
"I'll ask you the standard question. You know -"
"- Standard questions," Schultz said, rage rising like magma.
"I think this is fake," Stossel said.
"You think this is fake?"
Schultz grimaced. Then he clocked Stossel in the ear.
"What's that?" Schultz said. "Is that fake? Huh? What the hell's wrong with you? That's open-hand slap. Huh?"
Stossel stood up. Bad idea.
"You think it's fake, you unintelligible string of obscenities?"
This time Schultz struck with the left hand. Stossel fell, got up and scurried away.
He would sue for damages and win what was reported to be a large cash settlement. But Stossel learned two lessons from Schultz that day:
1. Men paid to throw fake punches can also throw real ones.
2. Brutality covers many falsehoods.
A modicum of magic
Minutes before showtime, two small men rehearse in a sweltering backstage room.
"I'm gonna kick you," Nooie Hockheimer tells Shayne Swyft. "Boom! I'm gonna throw you."
They twist and turn and shadowbox.
"I go to switch you off," Nooie says. "Boom! Short-arm."
Upstairs, in the lounge that doubles as a locker room, a purple-haired woman rattles off her wrestling injuries.
"I have no bursa left in my knee," says Ana Mosity, a.k.a. Jaton Ryder, who also produces a burlesque show called Thee Vaude Villains. "I've broken two ribs, snapped my wrist . . . I've been knocked out cold."
She says the promoters meet in advance to write the story line. She is scheduled for a surprise appearance tonight, her first in two months. At the end of her last match, the fans were given to understand she had broken her neck.
The show starts. A man in a skeleton suit lies on a folding table. A 285-pound combatant called Rough House leaps from a post, splinters the table and leaves the skeleton man twitching.
The wrestlers say basic competence comes only with at least a year of intense training, and here is how Rough House, real name Ralph Mosca, explains why skeleton man can walk away with his bones intact: Mosca intentionally lands just to the side of the target, seeming to crush his foe while actually absorbing most of the force himself.
"It's a magic show," he says.
Now comes Torcher, with red mohawk and blowtorch, shooting a tall flame that radiates heat 30 feet away. Three men surround him, pin him, kick his head.
He gets up, clutching his chest, and starts his Oscar speech.
"Hey boys," he says, "you may try to beat me down, but I'm still up!"
Four matches later, Sideshow comes out in a referee's jersey. The metal in his face could sink a battleship. He is known as the one who broke Ana's neck.
"How ya doing," he says, "ya bunch of corn bread, inbred, (anatomically incorrect) Pasco County parasites?"
He had made a show of officiating the next match, but now, in a stunning plot twist, he is told he must fight to defend his title or be suspended.
Taurus and Mercury join the fray, and Sideshow takes a beating. Ana comes out - surprise! - and throws him against a table.
She does not tell the fans, but her previous injury was a cover. She had just gotten a new job and couldn't get nights off.
Tonight, though, truth imitates fiction. As Ana goes to spear Sideshow, her head and neck strike the table. She twists two vertebrae. She will be out for three more months.
All for one
Athletes try to win. It is in their nature. Those caught doing otherwise - see Chicago Black Sox - risk being banned for life.
Conversely, pro wrestling requires players to take dives. But some disobey.
According to Hannigan, a few wrestlers - especially veterans facing rookies - have tried to win even when they've been told to lose.
That's a problem, because the choreography goes out the window. Spinebusters require cooperation. Real punches are less entertaining.
"If people wanted to see that," Hannigan says, "they could go to a regular boxing match."
Despite their bravado, wrestlers must be selfless. They are all on the same team.
Early in September, a promising young wrestler called Damien Angel was testing the ropes before a show in Daytona Beach when he fell backward on his head. Taurus, his tag-team partner, said later that Angel had cracked his skull.
The other wrestlers put on a benefit show a few days later. To help pay his hospital bills, they gave up their meager paychecks.
But the bulk of their income is untaxable. They are paid in adrenaline and cries from the crowd. They deal in suspended disbelief. Some have suspended their own.
Backstage before the match, Mercury watches with scorn as his colleagues rehearse. He says an athlete like himself needs no script.
"When they see David Mercury in the ring," he says of the audience, "they know it's real."
Seconds later, he is seen conferring with Taurus, the man who is scheduled to beat him tonight.
So it was written, and so it will be done.
Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.