By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"The problem with the big 'un is he's too stiff," Black Bart says to no one in particular as Aaron White's 275 pounds go on the receiving end of a hip toss. He somersaults to the canvas, a faint "u-u-u-nh!" whistling from his lips as he lands, face up and grimacing at the dusty U.S. and Mexican flags hung from the Sportatorium's rafters.
The winces and groans that pro wrestlers make are called "selling." As Bart tells his students, "You got to sell the hurt." But White isn't feigning the pain that's shooting through his left shoulder on his second day of wrestling school. It's "selling" itself, which isn't surprising to the young men in sweats standing around the Sportatorium's well-worn ring on a recent Saturday.
That's because roll call this morning at Black Bart's pro wrestling academy includes a sprained ankle, a separated shoulder, and some very sore ribs. Bart is banged up too. He wrestled the night before in a fake-bloody "cage match"--in which a chain-link fence is erected around the ring--and has a black-and-blue spot on his left arm from being dragged around by a 230-pounder named Ced-Man. "We opened a can of whupass last night, f-o-o-o-r sure," he says. "It was like the old days."
Bart's sentimentality notwithstanding, the majority of his five students have injured themselves in the early stages of learning to perform hip tosses, back drops, and monkey flips like true pros--meaning without getting hurt. It's as if the circus strong man were training to lift cardboard and dropped a real dumbbell on his foot.
Pro wrestling may be a beefy burlesque, a blue-collar opera buffa as genuine as a fistfight on Walker, Texas Ranger, but as one learns from a few days around the school, it takes body control and a body of knowledge to do it well. Acting skills, while a plus, are clearly not essential, as anyone who's heard even the best of the wrestlers' bombastic threats will attest. Still, it takes a little coaching to learn the illegal use of folding chairs, or how to splinter the ringside table.
And for this, Bart is the man.
"I take your ass, lift you up, and body slam you into the ring. Tell me. What's fake about that?" asks the 298-pound veteran, who through 24 years in the ring has become quite skilled in the move.
The answer, we soon learn, comes in lesson one.
Cornering a visitor in one of the Sportatorium's exquisitely seedy dressing rooms--empty, white-washed spaces littered with broken chairs and old programs--Bart commands, "This ain't going to be a 'pro-fesh-nul wrestling is bad' story.
"I ain't gonna say nothing bad about something that's been feeding me and my family for all these years," he adds, laying down the law through the monster dip of Redwood that blackens the back of his tongue.
Moments later, back in the ring, student Bryan Hlavaty practices falling on his back from a full handstand--a move that, no doubt, looks pretty brutal from a Sportatorium bleacher seat. But he pops up, fresh and unscathed, after each one.
Nope, there's no need to expose professional wrestling. It is what it is. Like monster-truck pulls, canned spaghetti, Slim Jims, and Gorgeous George versus Andre the Giant. Who doesn't love these things?
In a tattered back office, behind a door with a scribbled sign asking, "Please Dry Off Before Coming In--Buster," Rick Fowler turns down the acid rock on his dust-covered boom box and invites his visitor in.
The room, lighted by a single bare bulb on a pole, is all dirty carpet and stained acoustic tile and 1953 paneling resembling the stuff in those creepy Calvin Klein ads. A collection of rubber bands litters the floor in front of a baseboard next to Fowler's desk. He has been taking target practice at the house mouse--a healthy, nose-twitching gray, about three inches in diameter.
An enormously friendly, cube-shaped man whose fondness for the Spandex sport immediately comes through, the 43-year-old Fowler is half of the current promotions team at the Sportatorium--the fifth or sixth wrestling promoter in the building this decade.
Fowler hired Bart to start a school, the Power Pro Training Camp, as well as book wrestlers for the Friday night matches and "run the talent" on fight night. "People say the Sportatorium is deader than Kelsey's nuts for wrestling, but we're bringing it back," he says. "We'll try just about anything to bring up the house."
Two weeks ago, WFAA-Channel 8 bit on a publicity stunt of a story--launched by a Fowler press release--that the corrugated metal facility was going to be torn down and replaced with a drive-in beer barn. "Next month, wrestling promoters throw in the towel," reporter Doug Wilson told viewers in his "end-of-an-era" piece.
Today, Fowler laughs about his cheesy publicity gambit, saying he was just dying for some TV exposure to fill a few seats. He claims he has a new lease, although others connected somehow with the Sportatorium's byzantine ownership structure say the arena is still in danger.
On Friday match nights, crowds of between 200 and 400 bring in between $1,500 and $2,400, supporting a one-night payroll of 37 ushers, guards, and other assorted help, according to Fowler and Bart. The wrestlers make between $25 and perhaps $125 for the night depending on where they're placed on the card.