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An Amazon is born

We all have dreams. At this school of hard knocks, body slams and fat lips, "Kat'' has found hers: to wrestle her way to fame and fortune.

By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 1998


A knot of Filipino men had wandered out of the shops down the street and were crowded around the open door, peeking over each other's shoulders to cop a better look.

They'd heard the thunderclaps of bodies slamming onto the mat -- you can hear it all the way at the end of the block -- and knew that meant the crazy people were at it again.

"And she is here," said one of the men. He pointed to a tall, olive-skinned woman with braids halfway down her back.

That would be Kat.

This is a place where dreams begin: in a rented storefront on Ninth Street in downtown St. Petersburg that's sandwiched between the Phuong Video Rental Shop and the Qui Phi Beauty Clinic.

The Power Slam School of Professional Wrestling.

Kat ducked under the ropes and bobbed around the ring to warm up. Sweat glistened on her shoulders. The men at the door inched closer.

Andre Marcel, Kat's trainer and an owner of the school, told her she would be learning the drop kick move tonight.

"Drop kick?" she said with a smile. "That's what we're gonna learn? Yeah. I've been waiting for that.

"I love this, man."

An hour later, having polished her drop kicks, hip throws and hammerlocks, she started to climb through the ropes. Andre shook his head. Not just yet. First she had to sprint across the ring, bounce off the ropes, sprint back and rebound off the other side.

For the next five minutes, Kat shot back and forth, like some human slingshot, until she staggered to a corner and leaned into the ropes, thoroughly spent.

"You tired, Kat?" Andre asked.

"No," she gasped. "Just hot."

She poured herself into a metal folding chair and started to explain why she's doing this. Why a 33-year-old woman is giving up her job and spending several thousand dollars to start in Nowheresville with a dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

She knows there are no guarantees this will work. But she has to try.

She gives you a little jab in the arm every time she makes a point.

"I can keep up with the big boys, huh?" (jab)

"So what if I can get famous, you know?" (jab)

The Filipino men at the door nod and whisper. Sometimes they giggle.

"They're my fans, too, huh?" (jab)

Gotta have a gimmick

It's no accident that two of the biggest cable networks (USA and TNT) air pro wrestling during prime time at least three nights a week. In a recent ratings week, seven of the 10 most-watched shows on basic cable were pro wrestling matches.

And where there's high ratings, there's money.

The best of the prime time wrestlers, the Hollywood Hulk Hogans and Randy "Macho Man" Savages, earn millions in TV and movie deals and endorsements.

This is how far into the mainstream wrestling has waded: A group of wrestlers, including Hogan, Diamond Dallas Page and Lex Lugar, recently showed up on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, in costume, to sign autographs and pose for pictures. It was a mammoth publicity stunt for credit cards featuring images of the wrestlers. (The Dow Jones rose about 30 points while the wrestlers were visiting.)

For every Hulkster or Macho Man, there are countless men, and some women, parked in front of their TVs thinking, "You know, I could do that."

Some of these people find their way to places like the Power Slam School of Professional Wrestling. It is to pro wrestling what Class A minor league baseball is to the Major Leagues. Everybody is scratching and clawing to get to The Show.

"We usually get the three B's," Andre said. "Bikers, bouncers and bodybuilders."

The lure is stronger here because wanna-be wrestlers don't have to look far to see what success can bring. Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) grew up in the bay area and lives near Clearwater. Savage (Randy Puffo) also lives here, as do Al Dobalo, Dean Malenko and Dave "The British Bulldog" Smith.

Andre and co-owner Tim Maui not only train their students, they put on shows. Sometimes they'll be in the parking lot at the Rusty Nail in Pinellas Park or Starkey's Lounge near the Port of Tampa.

"You can make a good living," Andre said. "A lot of American women wrestle in Japan, where they can make about $5,000 a week. That's cash money. And they pay their expenses."

Training at the Power Slam School lasts six months. It costs about $2,000 and includes lessons on everything from how to enter the ring to how to give interviews. At the end comes what's probably the most important part: finding a gimmick. It's the persona the wrestler develops, and hopefully, it's one that sticks with the fans.

Hogan has the bandana and the blond hair. Macho Man has the cowboy hat and the Outer Limits sunglasses. The Undertaker has . . . well, he's just a big, scary guy with greasy hair.

It's a good time to get into the business. Not only is wrestling popular, but stars like Hogan, the Warrior and Rick Flair are in their 40s. When they retire, it will leave a huge void, like the NBA without Michael Jordan.

Once wrestlers have mastered the moves and come up with a gimmick, it's time to make a name for themselves in front of an audience. And it's not just the crowds they're trying to impress. If somebody from one of the two main camps -- World Championship Wrestling or World Wrestling Federation -- comes to see them, they could end up with a fat contract to work the really big arenas.

"If they have the right gimmick, if they stay in shape, and if they pay their dues and put their time in, they can make it," Andre said. "But there's also charisma. You gotta have that."

So far, no one he has trained has had as much of that as Kat.

There's a Hall of Fame there, right?

Her real name is Deanna Garza, she's 5 feet 9, and she's not embarrassed to reveal her weight.

"It's okay," she said. "It's 150 pounds, but there's some muscle there."

That's like looking at the Grand Canyon and saying there's some holes there.

She moved to St. Petersburg from Chicago 11 years ago, and comes from a family with three sisters and three brothers. "Seven kids fighting all the time, you know? (jab) I'm just . . . well, physical." (jab)

She bounced around a variety of jobs: fitness coach, personal trainer, exotic dancer. She had a husband who lived in the Cayman Islands, but that didn't work out and they divorced. Police caught her with cocaine and she got probation. She needed a new direction.

She started training in May and worked out at the gym two or three nights a week. There were dozens of moves to master, and her timing had to be flawless before she could take her act public. In August, she gave up her job as a dancer.

"I've walked outta here with fat lips, a dislocated jaw . . . but I want a contract," she said. "I want to go as high as I can.

"After 33 years, I finally found something I like."

Her first matches were far from home -- in and around the greater Canton, Ohio, area. She was paid $150 a match, plus expenses. Then she had a match in Jacksonville. Closer.

"I was so scared," she said. "But after the first night, I called up my roommate and said, "This is my life.' "

Finally, Andre determined that she was ready for her Tampa Bay debut.

Good versus evil; root for evil

* * *

Her gimmick is the evil kat woman. She wears black tights and a black cape. The only problem is, the fans like her.

"I'm supposed to be bad," she said. "But people keep cheering me."

Her big night was Saturday, Oct. 10, and it was no bar parking lot. It was the Tampa Bay Convention Center. The Knights of Columbus were holding a formal dinner in another part of the building.

The match was a benefit for the Fraternal Order of Police, and there were maybe 150 people in the nearly empty hall by the time an Elvis impersonator belted out the national anthem. Kat's take would be between $75 and $150, depending on how well she performed. But money was not a high priority at the moment.

"I think I'm gonna ace this test," she said before she ducked behind a makeshift curtain to get ready. "Did you hear that Macho Man's dad is here?"

Also in the audience were several friends, including Keith Mattson, her roommate. "She's been looking for something for a long time," he said, "and I think this is it."

After Harley Force and the Navy Seal and Hot Stuff did their thing, it was time.

Kat's opponent would be Starla, the blond, blue-eyed personification of wholesomeness. Elly May Clampett in powder blue spandex.

Starla waited in the ring as Cat Scratch Fever by Ted Nugent blared out of the PA system. Kat and Andre made their grand entrance, strutting and snarling past the rows of empty chairs. They went down the wrong aisle and had to strut and snarl their way back. But they had copped a seriously bad attitude, and they kept it.

For the next several minutes, the age-old battle between good and evil was played out on a 20-by-20-foot patch of canvas, with Elvis looking on. There was name-calling, there was hair-pulling, there was general mayhem.

In the end, Starla lost the match. She was disqualified, and even her manager left the ring with Kat and Andre.

The crowd went mild. "Oh, man, what'd you think?" Kat said afterward. (jab) "We didn't really work as much with our legs as I thought we would, but I felt really good."

Kat felt a pull on her back and turned to find a little girl, about 8 or 9, tugging on her cape. She wanted an autograph.

Kat borrowed a pen, knelt down and slowly signed her name.

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