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.
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."
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.
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."
Wendt, who wrestled for a while with the WCW in the early 1990s, says wrestling is so competitive that sharp skills are more of a must than ever. "You have to be good or people see right through it." But getting to the TV big time is another matter. "When they want you, they call," he says. "It's a funny business. When it's good it's good...When it's bad, it sucks."
On the night of student Jason Gallaway's professional debut, Fowler has the crowd of 300 or so eating out of his hand.
He's set up a hokey "Witch Doctor's Corner" near the ring, an "illegal" oasis decorated with plastic Halloween skeletons where the villains rule.
Fowler has some theatrics worked out for later in the night: a "battle royale" with seven guys in and around the ring, hammering on the ref, roaming into the audience, etc. The headliners, "Blackbird" Action Jackson and "Iceman" King Parsons, are Sportatorium regulars.
"I don't give 'em everything they want," says Fowler. "I give 'em nearly what they want."
Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Cold Shot," Bob Marley's "Jammin'," and some dance cuts warm up the thoroughly integrated crowd. In the sparsely filled stands are sheetrock installers, discount-store clerks, retired factory workers, and their kids or grandkids, who have paid between $5 and $10 for their seats. Fully half of the audience is 14 or younger.
Gallaway, dressed in a blue jersey with black flames, is paired for the first fight on the supporting card with Chuck Singer, a 212-pounder who looks about twice as wide as his rookie opponent.
After a few minutes of hip tosses, pile drivers, and body blocks, Gallaway is clearly sucking wind. Like most of Bart's students, he is a little surprised at how much stamina a match actually requires.
The action drags for a bit, the "dead air" is doing nothing for the crowd, and Fowler thinks it's a good time to break away.
"Here, let me introduce you to my partner," Fowler says.
But what happens to Gallaway?
"Oh, he wins," says Fowler, casually predicting the finale in which Singer jumps from the top rope, misses Gallaway with a spinning splash, then is cradled and pinned. "You think I'd let one of my students lose his first match