By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sportatorium wrestling goes back another 20 more years, to the 1930s and the days of Mad Mike Mazurki and the Hippo. Duke Keomuka and Fritz Von Erich, a post-WW II brand of villain, sold the building out week after week in the late 1940s and early '50s. In a hint at how dirty the business could get, an arson fire all but destroyed the building in 1953. The new building, equipped with "Circa-sonic sound," hosted a true-or-false game with a $1,000 grand prize.
Now, the place is like a coal-powered ship in an age of fuel oil. It's empty except for the Friday night rumbles and a few guys bouncing up and down in the ring on a Saturday morning.
As they tumble and roll, Bart says something about the ring being a tool. It appears pliant and forgiving enough to absorb at least a percentage of Gene Patton's weight as he goes through his warm-up: back drops, forward rolls, left shoulder roll-overs, right shoulder roll-overs, handstands. The hand-written lesson plan dictates 20 of each.
The back drops--falling on one's back from a head-stand position--begin to reveal a bit of wrestling's sleight-of-hand.
And it is this drop that the students learn in lesson one.
"If you fall absolutely flat, you don't feel it," says Patton. "When you miss it, you know."
Hlavaty, whom Bart must remind to remove his two earrings before he climbs through the ropes, executes a half-dozen correct ones, while Aaron White, trying a few drops of his own, flinches with pain. "It's very easy to get hurt, especially when you don't know a thing," says White, who managed to hurt himself before fully learning the art of a wrestling fall.
Even more insight into wrestling's art of deception comes a few minutes later as the class practices the hip toss--a basic but showy move. In a hip toss, wrestler A runs toward wrestler B, who turns slightly and presents his hip. Wrestler A tumbles off B and hits the canvas flat on his back. It looks like B has put a slick move on A, but A is the one providing 90 percent of the motion and nearly all of the control.
"If you're gonna one-point, don't go over," Bart barks, cautioning the guys to make certain they don't land on their heads, which Bart calls "tatering."
The disciples run a few more basic drills, then gather around for a little tutorial on "running the ring"--speeding across the canvas, lunging backward into the three elastic ropes, then speeding back in the other direction. The movement sets up the clothesline and at least a dozen other classic stunts.
From the first row of seats, pro wrestlers Kit Carson Wendt and Nic Cangiamilla shout tips and advice to the students while Fowler, in street clothes, climbs in himself to show how it's done. "This is why I don't come down here too many Saturdays--I can't stay out of the ring," he says.
Then Cangiamilla and Wendt take turns giving the more advanced students some ring experience.
Student J.R. West, a wisp of a man, goes at it first with muscle-bound Cangiamilla, who wrestles under the name "Glamour Boy" Nic Golden. In a few minutes, West goes to the fists. "Use the ones you know!" Bart yells as West throws a few chest and gut punches, stomping his foot in near-perfect timing, amplifying the blows.
Eighteen-year-old Jason Gallaway, a Red Oak High School graduate who's attended another wrestling school and is being "polished up" by Bart, goes at it next with Wendt, an agile 210-pounder.
"Get behind me, get behind me," Wendt urges Gallaway at one point, playing the near-finished wrestler scraping himself off the mat. After a few minutes, Gallaway grabs his side in honest pain and Bart breaks it off. "Maybe my muscles were too much for him," Wendt says.
Then there's a little talk on strategy: "If you're a bad guy, the idea is to go two-on-one with the good guy as often as you can," Wendt instructs.
It doesn't take long for the athletic Wendt to get a reputation among Bart's students as a good technician who likes to firm up the pressure and get physical. "When he body-slammed me, I thought, man, I felt that. That was the hardest body slam I've ever felt," says Patton, who has been in Bart's tutelage for eight weeks and says the whole thing reminds him of Army basic training.
Wendt, who has a dozen years in the business and eight more as amateur wrestler, describes himself as addicted to the ring. "I'll do anything if the money's good. One time I jumped off the rafter of an armory and fell 30 feet onto a guy," he explains nonchalantly.
Fowler signs him up during the practice to wrestle for $45 a match, more if the gates improve. Giving a bit of promoter's advice, Fowler suggests Wendt put a little peroxide on his hair. The next week, his mustache is bleached blond.
In Wendt's opinion, Bart is doing an honest job with his students. "Some promoters take their money up front and burn 'em," he says. "These guys are good for the time they've spent."