By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Having pulled on his black elastic knee guards, Nick Berger leaps up into the ring where William Gonzalez, his practice opponent and sometime tag-team partner, stands waiting. In one corner, Berger climbs to the middle of the three ropes, facing outward. Then he springs backward, flips and turns in midair, and smashes into Gonzalez's chest, knocking him flat on his back.
Gonzalez kicks out of the attempted pin, and they both get up to go through the move again. But Berger seems to have hit the top of his head on something sharp beneath the canvas -- a nail, he thinks -- and a rivulet of blood has begun inching down his forehead. Pacing the ring, he lets the blood run until it collects around his eyebrows and bridge of his nose. Finally his grimacing wife tosses him a crumpled cloth and he wipes his face.
"Real blood," remarks one of the practice session's half-dozen observers. "Not bad for practice."
Nick Berger is training for his comeback. He has been tanning and bulking up his body into a telegenic gourd-busting machine. And at least two nights a week, the 27-year-old Hialeah resident braves the suffocating heat in this small Hialeah Gardens gym to work on his moves. He's bent on making a name for himself in professional wrestling -- or for Tony Apollo, his wrestling alter ego, a good guy ("babyface" in industry-speak) in brightly colored spandex shorts. At practice, though, he's just Nick, a bronze-haired muscular man of medium stature, small for a wrestler, clad in running shorts and tank top.
Besides the indispensable knee protectors, Berger also wears a brace on his left arm, a souvenir of a grisly multiple fracture suffered a year and a half ago during a match: He came off the ropes and landed wrong on his hand, courtesy of an incompetent opponent. Berger hasn't had a bout since, but now he's back among the hundreds of wrestlers across America who are slamming away in local promotions, pursuing the uniquely gothic dream of breaking into the industry's big leagues: On June 6, at a Homestead banquet hall called Ray'z Place, Tony Apollo is scheduled to meet the ultimate in evil: El Fidelista, a masked soldier in Castro's army.
At the time he broke his arm, Berger felt he was well on the way to the top. He was developing a following locally and had been approached by a representative of a major U.S. federation about performing in Japan, where his gymnastics-influenced style is popular. The injury, which left him with two metal plates in his arm, forced him to focus on other priorities, such as earning his bachelor's degree in physical education at Florida International University.
He's nearly finished with his studies, but the urge to wrestle persists -- to the dismay of his parents, who wish he'd grow out of it. "Every Saturday morning I watched wrestling on TV with my brother and the kids in the neighborhood," Berger recalls. "They'd all toss me around and suplex me." He began gymnastics lessons at age nine and also studied martial arts, but he never lost the yen to wrestle. All through school he and his brother worked on moves together, and after high school graduation Berger contacted the promoters for a local federation. "My brother and I had big-time dreams of doing what the Steiner Brothers are doing now," he says, referring to a tag-team brother act that is popular on the national wrestling scene. "But at that time [the mid-Eighties] the big thing was you had to be really huge. I was turned down immediately."
So Berger waited. He enrolled in FIU, got a job substitute teaching. And in 1992, prompted by an article in the Miami Herald, he called Bill Brown, a promoter whose Sunshine Wrestling Federation seemed to be making an impact on the local scene. "We sat down to lunch in a bagel shop in Kendall and went over my background. They latched on to me because of my gymnastics background."
Pro wrestling, of course, is a far cry from gymnastics. By his own count, Berger has dislocated his shoulder twice and has a scar over his right eye from getting thrown into a turnbuckle. Those injuries, however, were nothing compared to the arm fracture, which occurred in a low-budget show in Avon Park. "I wanted as many eyes as possible to see me," he says ruefully. "I was willing to do just about anything to make it. But I'm not going to take any more jobs like that."
It's tough to make a living in regional wrestling. For the serious money, you have to get on national television, and about the only way to do that is to graduate to one of the nation's two major wrestling federations: the Stamford, Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation, and World Championship Wrestling, owned by media mogul Ted Turner and headquartered in Atlanta. (Extreme Championship Wrestling, an upstart federation in Philadelphia, is gaining TV exposure, but not enough to challenge the big two.) Some U.S. wrestlers are also able to reach the big time after spending a few years performing in foreign countries, especially Mexico or Japan, both of which are home to loyal fans and long wrestling traditions.