By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Bart, a 42-year-old from Haltom City, grew up watching Johnny Valentine and Fritz Von Erich wrestle at Will Rogers Coliseum. He got in the business fresh out of high school in 1973. "My first name was the Arkansas Strangler, then it went to Strangler Malakov, then Rick Harris, Man-mountain Harris, then El Lobo, which I did under a hood. It's been Black Bart for the last 15 years."
Wrestling for 11 months with the WWF in 1990, Bart and his trademark branding iron made more than $100,000. "Of course I blew it all," he says, explaining why these days he works full time on a construction crew. They install utility poles--which you imagine Bart simply lifting up and sticking in the ground.
"It's in my blood; I could never get it out," he says of his weekends in wrestling.
At times, Bart reveals what you might call his softer side. He lectures his students about being dependable and showing up on time, pulls them aside for some encouragement, rests them when they're hurt, advises them to practice their facial expressions at home in the mirror.
"I'm working" he says, "with some good kids."
If anything, the five guys in Power Pro Training Camp are living proof of the potent force of TV on young minds. All came of age watching pro wrestling on the tube, and they reach for those memories to explain why they want to carry on this retro sport.
Twenty-one-year-old Bryan Hlavaty, a lanky type who optimistically describes himself as 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, remembers his fascination with the Von Erich offspring--the ill-fated Kerry, David, and Michael Adkisson, who ruled Dallas wrestling in the 1980s.
"I watched them on TV and went down to the Sportatorium, then I stopped watching," recalls Hlavaty, who graduated from Berkner High School in Richardson and now works processing checks for an insurance company. "Then about five or six months ago, I started watching again. I always wanted, you know, to be an actor. Then it was being a writer. When I started watching this again, I thought, 'This is something I want to do.'
"All my friends thought it was just another phase."
Aaron White, 28, says he's been watching Saturday-night wrestling for so long, he remembers "when Hulk Hogan was a bad guy." White moved to Dallas to attend the school from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he made a living as a welder, tugboat crewman, and factory laborer.
"It's been my dream," says White, a married father of two. "I finally got the nerve to check it out, and I jumped in."
Like several of his peers, White checked out the WCW and WWF schools and couldn't swing their tuition: $2,500 up front. Fowler wants only $500 up front, and $75 a lesson, pay as you go, up to a total of $1,500. Fowler says most students take four to six months to train.
Everyone in the group talks about wanting to break into the big time, but they also talk about other, perhaps more realistic, routes: wrestling in the small time for a while, or picking up work in Japan or Mexico, where some smaller wrestlers have thrived. They draw some optimism from the fact that agile wrestlers in the 210-to-220-pound range are currently in vogue at the top.
Says White, "I don't want a weekend job. I want to be on the road making money."
At 32, Gene Patton is the oldest in the class. He's another with memories of watching wrestling as a kid. Growing up in Independence, Kansas, Patton remembers watching stars like Wildfire Tommy Rich. "My grandfather and I would jump up and down and practice how to reverse holds and stuff."
Patton's relatives are big people--6-foot-2, 200-pound types, and, he says, "I thought I was going to be a big guy too, until I stopped growing at 16." At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, he has the muscled, pork-chop build of a collegiate wrestler rather than the hulking superstructure of a pro. "Tommy Rich wasn't the biggest guy in the ring, either," Patton says. "But he exploded into his moves."
Patton tended bar in Kansas to put his wife through nursing school. Now she's earning the checks while he takes a year to chase his wrestling dream.
He puts in 12 hours a week at the gym, another six to 10 lifting weights at home. "I feel like I can climb the Empire State Building now," he says, adding that he gets so psychologically worked up over the Saturday-morning class that his stomach churns.
They start pulling their pickups or cars into the Sportatorium's dirt lot around 9 a.m. and cart their gym bags into a dressing room littered with beer cans and cigarette butts from the fight night before.
The 44-year-old metal barn of a building, Dallas' creeky shrine to wrestling, is in about the same shape as the sport itself.
Far above the blue canvas ring, boxed in by red, yellow, and blue ropes, the belt on a huge exhaust fan squeaks like a swarm of crickets. The varnished benches march to the steel rafters on dirty, worn planks.