By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Welcome to the small time's super-heavyweight division.
In the Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Champion Wrestling, "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, and their ex-NFL colleagues earn something between a good living and B-movie wages in well-rated televised matches. Elsewhere, wrestler paydays are more bust than boom.
In 1981, 13 million people attended professional wrestling matches in civic centers and auditoriums around the United States. Last year, fewer than 2 million did. Much of the $300 million a year generated by this world of cartoonish slapstick and superhero physiques ends up with the two TV series. Independent regional promoters have long complained that WWF and WCW have all but closed them down.
"You have guys who come in here and say, 'I want to be a superstar on TV,' and I think, 'You're not very bright,'" Fowler says. "If you weigh 170 pounds, it's not gonna happen."
"They have to have a look, a certain something," he adds. "We can help give 'em a look, work on the physical part of it, the showman part of it, teach 'em to do the TV interviews. People think you can just do this, but that's not true. It's like being computer-literate.
"We got some guys in here now who weigh 170, but we can tell them how to put on the weight...We don't make any promises."
Fowler, who grew up playing high school football and running track for the Weatherford Kangaroos, was a construction worker in his late 20s when he began his own decade-long ring career. He met a few wrestlers while working out at a Weatherford gym, went to a wrestling school in the Fort Worth Stockyards, then made a small mark on the wrestling world as the 280-pound biker Buster Blackhart, Dog of War.
After he tattooed a flaming heart on his left arm, he "was pretty much stuck being a bad guy," he says. An old promotional shot of Fowler distending his lower lip on a ring pole indicates he wasn't miscast.
"I loved performing," he says of his best days in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It didn't hurt that he knew a few beer-drinking brutes who would come over from Parker County and support his act.
Fowler joined up with Mike Morrow, who became Butch Blackhart, the other half of the Dogs of War wrestling team. The two men spent so much time on the road that they developed a seating plan for restaurant booths, to settle the running question of who would face the door. "We'd face the Blackhart tattoos out," Fowler says.
Now, a decade later, Fowler gets around on bad knees--as Bart says, "his wheels gave out"--and makes his living off of a video store, a tanning salon, and his wife's beauty parlor. They're in Brock, a tiny town west of Weatherford.
Fowler's 14-year-old son, Dusty, comes along to the matches, helps work the lights, and has every intention of becoming a second-generation pro. "He's only known wrestling for what it really is," says Fowler. "He's never had the thrill these other kids get from it.
"A lot of guys won't tell you the trade secrets. But it's like a stunt fight on TV--90 percent show. We teach these guys how to put a hammer lock or a wrist lock on someone, and how to put on a good 'un. Then you back off the pressure."
The trick is to wrestle "tight" enough to make it look good, he says.
There are other secrets as well. The major sections and moves in a match are scripted in the locker room, but many of the moment-to-moment combinations are "called" by the more senior of the two wrestlers while the two are locked in a clinch. When they're moving, they're always circling to the right to keep things predictable.
A timekeeper gives the referee a signal to end the match. That's when the preordained winner delivers a dramatic final move--say, a flying cross-body--and gets the "one, two, three."
Black Bart isn't one to help give any of this material away. "The guys talk to each other in this ring, but it's just practice," he says, spitting tobacco juice into a near-full Diet Dr Pepper bottle.
Ever a protector of the code, Bart is the only one in the group who demurs when asked to confirm his out-of-ring name. (Hint: the little 15-year-old Volkswagen he drives up is registered to Bonnie B. Jones, who lives with a guy named Rick.)
Bart and family live in western Parker County, near the little burg advertised on his ever-present gimme cap. It reads Cody's Country Market and Cafe, Tin Top, Tex.
A genuinely rural sort, his wrestling shoes are red and black cowboy boots. He works stripped to the waist, his majestic gut...well, out there. "He has that country thing," Fowler says of Bart's act. "He goes out to the audience shouting gawl-dern this and dad-gum that. People love it."
Bart, too, has wrestling deep in the family blood. "My son Joshua is five, and he knows every move," he says. "My sister made a tape of my matches, and about a year ago, Joshua watched it day in and day out. He took his stuffed animals and started doing the moves on them. He'd do leg drops and big splashes off the sofa. Shit, he completely tore the stuffing out of his bear. Now he's knocking around his [toy horse] Pegasus."