By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
"Basically this is the best time to be an established wrestler and the worst time to be a guy trying to break into wrestling. The odds of making it are not good," explains Dave Meltzer, who edits the Wrestling Observer newsletter in San Jose, California. "Hundreds and hundreds of people want to make it, and the two major federations probably have about 130 guys under contract. Probably half of those are working full-time."
Adds James J. Dillon, chairman of World Championship Wrestling's executive committee: "It's not unusual for us to get 40 to 50 audition videotapes in the period of a month, all from guys looking for their chance at the golden ring."
The major federations seldom disclose salaries. But industry insiders say the biggest stars -- Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, Randy "Macho Man" Savage -- earn in excess of one million dollars a year, while other TV stars make anywhere from $50,000 to the high six figures. Most of them must purchase their own health insurance, a formidable expense in the injury-intensive profession.
Wrestling hasn't been the same since 1988, when Turner bought in and commenced to produce several hours of cable TV programming each week. World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was the first serious competition for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), whose legendary owner Vincent McMahon revolutionized the industry during the Eighties, when he made Hulk Hogan a household name and wrestling a TV art form. Hogan and several other former WWF stars have since signed on with WCW. Both federations have huge television audiences -- a recent showing of WWF's Monday-night program Raw on the USA cable network garnered TV ratings surprisingly close to those of a Knicks playoff game it was up against -- although Turner seems to be pulling ahead.
Still, the smaller, regional wrestling federations endure, functioning somewhat like farm teams to the major leagues. They don't have the money to buy much -- if any -- television time, and they can't sell as many tickets to live shows as the big federations, which send their stars on the road most of the year to perform in cities and towns around the world. Local federations frequently sink under the weight of the odds against them, only to be replaced by new impresarios who come along and proclaim their dedication to bringing back "old-time wrestling."
The six-year-old Cutler Ridge-based Sunshine Wrestling Federation (SWF) is one of those. The brainchild of 43-year-old insurance agent Bill Brown, the SWF stages more live professional wrestling shows in Florida than any other independent federation (about one program every three or four weeks), making it the successor to the defunct Championship Wrestling of Florida, which flourished in the Sixties and Seventies when the state was a wrestling mecca.
Besides providing cheap, rousing entertainment for a growing core of wrestling fanatics, local programs are important learning experiences for performers attempting to develop their own style and "character." From these shows, up-and-coming wrestlers can put together the all-important demo videotape of their best moments in the ring and the equally crucial "interviews," those pre- and post-match insultfests in which wrestlers taunt, threaten, and growl at each other and whoever else is irritating them at the moment.
The bearded, silver-haired Brown, whose cousin Frank Dillenger was half of the wrestling Psycho Chain Gang that mixed it up all over the U.S. in the Sixties, had just formed the SWF when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, destroying his South Dade home and his warehouse gym -- virtually everything he owned except a wrestling ring. Then again, many of the wrestlers he knew were in a similar bind. "We had nothing to do," Brown recalls. "You had to stay at your house to watch over the contractor during rebuilding, but that was about it. One of the guys had a truck, so we loaded up the ring and went around to tent cities and performed live shows."
The tent-city shows went on for several months. Then Brown found an investor in attorney Bernie Siegel, and the SWF began presenting programs in permanent buildings and charging admission. They now work with some 100 wrestlers, according to Brown. Attendance at the SWF promotions, as at live shows all over the nation, has been healthy. Anywhere from 300 to 1000 people per show are willing to shell out the eight to twelve dollars for a ticket, according to Brown, who says the federation's revenues have been "consistently growing."
SWF also has a training academy, which is run by William Gonzalez, a six-year veteran of pro wrestling. One of Gonzalez's star pupils is Jorge Abad, a seventeen-year-old Hialeah-Miami Springs High junior who signed up after attending a recent SWF show in Homestead with his father and introducing himself to Bill Brown.
"I told him I wanted to be a wrestler," says Abad, a towering, peaceful-looking kid with shoulder-length dark hair who immigrated to Miami with his family from Peru only two years ago. His father paid $2000 to enroll his son in the SWF academy. By the time the training is completed -- it might run anywhere from three months to a year; everyone's learning curve is different -- Abad should be earning $50 or $100 per match. "I dream about it and everything," the student admits. In the ring Gonzalez puts him through a series of moves: leg drop, splash, neck breaker. "Rude awakening, the neck breaker," Gonzalez imparts. "No, no, never land like that," he instructs Abad, who's grimacing and rubbing his head after an attempt at the complicated over-the-shoulder heave. "You kick your feet out and land like this." Gonzalez's back hits the canvas hard and loud. They try again, then move on to some drops and holds. "You gotta get there quicker. I don't care if you're tired," Gonzalez tells his student. "You grab my knee with that arm. Bend down. Drop a leg, but better than that, you're just falling. Reverse headlock. Headlock takedown."