tampabay.com

Real men sweat and wrestle

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published May 28, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Arthur Breur pressed down on the other man's back, cradling him in his arms.

"Wrestle!" the coach barked, and then Breur's only thought was domination, pinning the other man down, forcing him to submit.

Breur didn't wrestle in high school, even though the coach wanted him on the team. He was scared that if he rolled around on the floor with another guy, everyone would see how he felt.

Everyone would know what he was.

But this night, he strained on the mat, sweat running down into his singlet. At 39, he's the president and youngest member of the Eagles Gay Wrestling Club.

Twice a month, the Eagles meet at this old dance studio in the back of the sprawling pink-stucco Suncoast Resort to pit their strength against each other, mano a mano. Members have been to the Gay Games and taken home gold medals. They've also formed a network of friendships more precious than gold.

"It's one of the best things that ever happened in my life, " said Lou Hidu, 55, a founding member.

"I've found out what kind of man I am through wrestling."

* * *

On a recent rainy Wednesday, the turnout was seven: 46-year-old coach Ed Briggs, Hidu and Breur, two other regulars, and a visitor from another club out of town. As they stretched out, someone's knee made a loud pop.

They are no longer young. Many years have passed since the early days, when the club staged matches in an improvised ring outside the old Eagle bar at the Suncoast Resort, a cultural icon of the local gay community.

"Guys would come to the bar just to watch us wrestle in our little singlets, " Hidu said. "We were all a lot cuter back then."

Back then, there were only one or two gay wrestling clubs in the country. Now, there are dozens, from San Francisco to New York.

Why join an all-gay club?

There aren't any straight wrestling clubs, Hidu said.

Straight men play softball, football, and soccer. They box and practice karate. But they don't wrestle. Wrestling, as a sport, requires sustained male-male full-body contact, which adult straight men generally find uncomfortable - even suspect.

"People think if you do it past a certain age, there must be something there, " said Briggs, the coach.

In fact, the club is totally platonic. There's even a fairly strict no-dating policy among members.

Over the years, gay men have sometimes showed up at practice looking for a different kind of action. But they quickly discover their mistake, Hidu said. The Eagles isn't a sex club.

"When you're engaged in a sport like wrestling, you have to get over any physical hang- ups you might have, " he said. "It can't be a sexual thing."

* * *

When they finish stretching, Briggs paired up the men to practice holds and takedowns. Hidu squared off with a man named Phil, who asked that his last name not be printed. He's not public about his sexual orientation.

Hidu put Phil in the hold Briggs was showing them, and started the take-down, using his weight as leverage on Phil's left arm, rolling him over to pin his shoulders.

"That hurts like hell, " Phil commented.

"Supposed to, " said Briggs.

Phil is not shy about expressing emotions. "Arrrrrggghh, " he cried.

"See, the arm is not extended, " Briggs explained. "So you're not violating."

"But it hurts, " Phil said. "Hey, Lou. Lou! Lou! Be gentle!"

Then they switched places. Phil's turn to apply some pressure, which he did.

"Break his arm, Phil!" one of the men called.

Hidu's turn to sweat.

* * *

Like Breur, Hidu first got interested in wrestling as a kid.

"It was tied up with my sexuality, " he said. "There was an attraction there, but I didn't know what it was."

Like a lot of gay men in his generation, Hidu faced a quandary. Did being gay mean he was less of a man? Did the regular ideas of manliness even apply to him?

"We all go through that phase of overdoing femininity, the 'Oh-Mary' thing, " Hidu said. "Either you follow through with that, or you become comfortable in your own skin."

For Hidu, being part of the counter-culture movement - a "very typical long-haired hippy freak" - was a partial solution.

"I was a child of the '60s, " Hidu said between practice matches. "A hundred and twenty pounds. My arms were probably as big as my wrists."

But something was missing.

"I am basically a jock, " Hidu said. "It was always there. There was a jock inside the freak, struggling to get out."

When he started wrestling in his 30s, he never looked back.

It was the same for Breur. Wrestling unlocked something inside him.

"It makes you more aggressive, " he said. "You realize that it's not a bad thing to go into a situation wanting to beat your opponent."

* * *

After two hours of wrestling, the men emerged, covered in sweat and winded, and trooped downstairs to the tiki bar in the center of the hotel.

The Suncoast Resort's owner recently confirmed that the hotel could soon become a Home Depot. The Eagles will have to find a new place to practice.

It's too bad, they agreed. They've become fond of the faded mats and the wall of mirrors in the old dance studio, and the after-practice tiki-bar beer has become a ritual.

But the Eagles will find a home.

"They're probably going to have to drag me off the mat dead, " Hidu said.

The Eagles sat at the bar, a bunch of sweaty guys drinking beer, friends for life.

When it was time to go, the men hugged and kissed each other on the cheek.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at srosenbaum@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2442.