Making it in South Florida's indie wrestling circuit
Pablo Marquez pumps his fists toward the rafters of Coral Springs Gymnasium. Sweat races off his forehead, dripping onto the soft cotton fabric of his royal blue leotard. His wide, brown eyes gaze menacingly at Ricky Young, a wrestler packing a chiseled 254-pound body into a six-foot-four frame. Marquez's black-and-white patent leather boots bounce on the 18-by-18-foot bloodstained wrestling ring as he lets out a howl:
At five-foot-eight and 183 pounds, the Quito native resembles a Chihuahua about to naively engage an American bulldog in a righteously unfair dogfight. Young, an olive-skinned, muscular titan with a Japanese-themed sleeve tattoo that runs from his left pec to his left wrist, beats his chest with a mastiff-like ferocity. "Come get some!" Young barks. The pair growl and snap at each other to the ecstatic delight of 75 to 100 spectators, mostly prepubescent boys and their parents, who have shown up for Coastal Championship Wrestling's annual Hardcore Holiday event, held this past December 4.
In the front row, an overweight fan wearing all black attire and Insane Clown Posse face paint, yells: "Crush him, Ricky!" Young's manager and retired wrestler Scott Hall, his shoulder-length raven hair twisted into a French braid, stalks the side of the ring just in front of the announcer's table.
Marquez and Young circle each other, then lunge, clasping their hands around each other's necks. Young throttles Marquez onto the ropes. After a flurry of violence, he picks up Marquez, puts him over his shoulders, and purposely falls backward, landing his massive weight on top of the little guy, who hits the canvas hard. "How you like that, punk?" Young hisses.
Since he began wrestling 19 years ago, the doe-eyed Ecuadorian has been cast as a Puerto Rican, donned a sombrero and poncho as a Mexican for low-budget outfits in Broward County, and even assumed the identity of a sardine-eating Hindu servant to reach the pinnacle of professional wrestling, where names such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the Undertaker, the Rock, and MVP draw thousands to sold-out arenas and stadiums.
"People still remember that character," Marquez says. "I never became rich, but I have a lot of good memories, and I made a lot of good friends."
Working the local independent circuit is a vexing journey for any wrestler. Unlike World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), most of the leagues in South Florida scrape by, relying on a loyal yet small fan base to fill local shows. Young wrestlers participate to gain experience and exposure that may ultimately lead to the WWE but usually garners them attention from midlevel organizations from around the country and the world, where they make $1,000 or less a week.
For older guys like Marquez, events like Hardcore Holiday provide a forum to continue feeding off the adrenalin that keeps wrestlers pumped. There are no sold-out arenas, big paydays, or television cameras on the independent circuit, just lots of blood, bruises, and concussions for a bunch of human pinballs whose day jobs range from private security guards to city garbage workers. Wrestlers have been known to drive 400 miles to earn $5 for the joy of being body-slammed around a ring.
"When I was breaking into wrestling, I thought I was going to become a millionaire," Marquez says. "The reality is that there are thousands of wrestlers out there, but only five really make a living out of it. Now, being in the ring has become therapy for me. It has kept me sane."
Today, the 37-year-old fireplug is at the tail end of his career, performing occasional gigs in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico, and South Florida. He works a 9-to-5 as a file clerk for a process service company and sometimes trains wrestlers for Don Ackerman, who owns Body Slam University along with South Florida wrestler Bruno Sassi. The duo charges enrollees $100 a month to learn the trade and helps them land gigs around the state, some through their own wrestling promotion company, Coastal Championship Wrestling, which puts on Hardcore Holiday. Other local leagues include Independent Champion Wrestling and Future of Wrestling, which provide venues for green wrestlers to hone their skills and pay their dues. Still, only a small number get opportunities to compete in Florida Championship Wrestling, an organization that cultivates performers for the WWE.
Ackerman, who has wrestled professionally for 20 years, says anyone considering a career in leotards and boots has to come to terms with the minuscule odds of becoming a multimillion-dollar commodity like the Rock or "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The shows he puts on are a labor of love, his income coming from 12-hour days working as a process server.
In the five years he's owned the academy, only one pupil has become a superstar. He's Opa-locka-raised Alvin Burke Jr., who went on to become MVP, WWE's United States champion in 2007. Burke left WWE this past December. "It's a numbers game at the end of the day," Ackerman says. "You really have to catch a promoter's eye. Showmanship can't be taught. You have to step outside yourself, and become a character. Some guys can't do it."
A gargantuan fair-skinned man with a grungy, sandy-blond beard breathes heavily. His gruff voice crackles to life: "War." He wears a Halloween skull mask over his massive face, his razor-blue eyes fixed on a video camera. "War is coming," the 400-pound giant declares. Around his bulbous neck, the six-foot-four ogre sports a prize: a thick leather belt with an audaciously big platinum buckle. "As you can see by this beautiful medallion around my neck, war is here," he rattles. "Waaaaaarrr!"
Joey Saint tears off his disguise. Blood streaks his chin, cheeks, and forehead. His golden hair is soaked in sweat. On his chest is a tattoo of the number 666. "War doesn't stop," Saint grunts. "War keeps on going, like the Portrait of American Horror will never end." Saint holds up his belt in front of the camera. The buckle is inscribed with the words Professional Wrestling International Brass Knuckles Champion. The 28-year-old mangler caresses the polished metal. "War will continue as long as this is on my shoulder," Saint vows. "As long as this belt is around my neck, as long as there are lungs in my body... "
He pauses for a second and leans closer. "As long as no one has carved them out of my chest!" he roars, then turns the volume down to a whisper. "As long as I can breathe, war is coming."
Saint steps off-camera and disappears.
On a recent evening, Saint and his mom are manning the cash register of their family-owned restaurant, Hot Stuff Grille, at 4300 W. Broward Blvd. in Plantation. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, the self-anointed "Portrait of American Horror" is the oldest of Francine Saint's four children and the only one pursuing a profession that involves bashing opponents with folding chairs and drop kicks. Although most moms and dads would scoff at a child's dream of becoming a wrestler, Francine never discouraged her boy, who is a polite, self-deprecating fellow when not wearing his leotard and skull mask.
"As a single parent, I raised my kids to be outgoing, optimistic people," she says. "Positive thinking yields positive results." When Saint was 17 years old, the family relocated to Fort Lauderdale from Las Vegas, where he had been a member of his high school's wrestling team and drama club. "My first play was Almost, Maine?" Saint notes. "I used to be able to sing."
A few weeks after the move, Saint attended his first wrestling event. "For seven bucks, I got to sit in the front row," he recalls. "I was blown away by the entire spectacle. Pretty soon, I was asking the promoters if I could help out any way I could."
While working menial day jobs most of his young adult life, Saint volunteered at local shows, working security, manning the soundboards, putting up the rings — anything the promoters asked him to do. "I just absorbed everything about the business," Saint says. "I finally started training and doing matches in 2008."
Working at Hot Stuff five days a week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. allows him to train four nights a week and take up gigs on weekends. "I only attend his PG-rated matches," Francine says. "Last year, he got hit with a chair. He had to get staples to close this big gap in the back of his head."
On a recent evening after one of his gigs, Brian "The Beast" Brody is in the parking lot of Saint's Hot Stuff Grille, where he works part-time as a delivery driver for his tag-team partner. When he's not stomping around, screaming at no one in particular, and scaring children, Brody is a soft-spoken chap with a pretty keen sense of humor. "If one kid isn't crying when I'm out there, then I'm not doing my job right," Brody attests. "If people are going to boo you, then give them a reason to. What better reason than scaring children?"
Brody emphasizes that even though he was raised in Hialeah by a Cuban father and Ecuadorian mother, he is an American. As a kid, his parents frowned on wrestling. "I wasn't allowed to watch it," he says. "My parents only let me watch shows like America's Funniest Home Videos." Brody had to get his wrestling fix at a friend's house, where wrestling wasn't banned.
At 16, when he was a sophomore at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High, Brody's puberty kicked into overdrive, turning him into a teen wolf. "People made fun of me for sure," Brody admits. "My friends picked on me a lot, and I didn't have a sense of humor. Wrestling helped me realize you are not living if you are serious all the time."
After graduating high school in 2005, Brody signed up at Body Slam, but he wasn't fully committed to the wrestling gig until three years later, when he met Saint while doing a show with Fort Lauderdale-based Independent Championship Wrestling. "Joey was recruiting guys to do a wrestling show for an anime-comic book convention," Brody recollects. "We started talking and hit it off." At that time, Brody had not yet taken on his Cro-Magnon alter ego.
He remembers discussing with Saint possible gimmicks. "It came down to Blanka, the orange-haired savage with razor-sharp teeth from the arcade game Streetfighter; and the Geico caveman," Brody says. "Guess which one we picked."
As "The Beast," Brody's thick, black, shoulder-length hair flows into a bushy beard that touches the top of his furry chest. In fact, his entire body is covered in a fine human pelt. He looks like a cross between the Geico caveman and Animal from The Muppet Show.
"God hates us all," he mutters in front of the camera in a low guttural voice. "God hates us all."
The camera zooms out. The shaggy one is not alone. Saint, sans beard, skull mask, and belt, is there too. "This guy right here is known as a fire-starter," Saint declares, "a riot-maker, moonstricken with his animal need! A bad seed! The Beast! Brian Brody! And it is not only because he is covered in this fine fur coat! It's because he maims people!"
The camera cuts back to Brody, his disheveled hair covering his furry mug. Brody growls: "I will, I will, I will unleash the beast!"
Saint yanks Brody by his mane, and the pair walk out of the frame.
Three weeks before the Hardcore Holiday mashup, Marquez observes his 20-year-old student Felipe Rodriguez administer "the chop" on a nonwrestling visitor. The move requires a wrestler to slap his opponent's chest with the back of the hand. Rodriguez — a 20-year-old Kendall resident who wrestles under the nom de guerre Ruffio Lionhawk and dons a bird-decorated Mexican wrestler mask over his face — viciously smacks the guest's pecs. "That slap wasn't loud enough," Rodriguez says. "Let's try that again." Rodriguez rears his massive, olive-skinned flesh mitt once again. The visitor exhales. Whap!
The wrestler's victim yelps. Marquez nods approvingly.
Soon, the instructor has Rodriguez and the other trainees run several drills. They practice their leapfrogs, flipping on to their backs from a kneeling position, timing the clothesline without crushing an opponent's sternum, and drop-kicking them across the mat. He also instructs them on how to hold an audience's attention.
Marquez pulls Rodriguez's head toward his body while cocking his own noggin in the direction of an imaginary crowd. The Ecuadorian contorts his face into a scowl. "You want to fixate on your fans," Marquez says. "You want to meet their gaze. Let them know you are putting on a show for them. Let them feel your energy."
Marquez, whose family immigrated to Queens, New York, first felt that energy when he was 4 years old. "I remember my dad taking me to Madison Square Garden to see Bob Macklin versus 'The Russian Bear' Ivan Ko-loff," the pugnacious Ecuadorian recollects. "I've been into wrestling since the 1970s."
But his dad was not happy when Marquez announced he would pursue a wrestling career shortly after his high school graduation in 1991. "He thought I was crazy," Marquez says. "He was dead-set against it." In 1992, when he was 18 years old, Marquez was accepted into ECW House of Hardcore training camp. Three years later, he made his debut under the ring-name El Puerto Riqueño, changing his native identity for career advancement. He challenged for the ECW Television Championship on several occasions but never won the belt.
In 1998, Marquez signed with World Wrestling Federation, a predecessor to WWE, and took on the mantle of Babu, man servant to a wrestling persona known as Tiger Ali Singh, heir to an extravagant fortune from India. A YouTube clip of WWF's Sunday Night Heat shows Marquez wearing a linen kurta, baggy pants, Aladdin slippers, and a red turban, stuffing sardines into his mouth with his bare hands.
Marquez embraced the demeaning role. "One time, Tiger told me I had to bow in front of him," he says. "I did one better. I got on my knees and kissed his feet. I had fun with the character." It was the zenith of Marquez's career. He made three to four grand a week, he claims. "My money was small potatoes to what the big names pulled in," Marquez says. "But it was the most money I ever made in wrestling."
Four months after his debut, WWF released him from his contract, and Marquez returned to ECW, where he stayed until 2003. He left to wrestle for World Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico, where he won that organization's junior heavyweight championship three times. After working for another Puerto Rican promotions company in 2005 and 2006, Marquez spent a year in Japan before returning to the United States. "I'm pretty much nearing the end of my career," he concedes. "But I don't have any regrets. I'm hoping I can pass on my experience to these younger guys here."
It's about an hour after Marquez's Hardcore Holiday match against Young ended. After weathering a furious onslaught, Marquez had turned the bout in his favor with a series of moves. His drop kick had put Young on his back, but it had inadvertently knocked out the referee, allowing Young and his manager, Scott Hall, to take turns beating the crap out of the little Ecuadorian until the referee snapped out of his daze and disqualified the bullies.
Marquez gazes around the gym's dressing room, surveying his peers. Young and Hall are packing up two boxes with leftover memorabilia and posters they weren't able to sell. The 37-year-old grappler notes that his more muscular foe spent the past four years with WWE. "I never had the privilege of working with a wrestler of his caliber," Marquez says. "It was a pleasure to be out there with him. Too bad this was one my worst matches ever."
Nearby, some of his former and current pupils commiserate over their performances. Among the horde are Brody and Saint, who is sporting a black ten-gallon cowboy hat. For Coastal Championship Wrestling's event, the promoters asked him to play a cowboy gimmick, so for one night, he is Fat Bart. Saint says he has no problem changing characters for a promoter. Being flexible and reliable usually means more gigs, the juggernaut explains. "If I had said no, can you imagine how stupid that would have been?" Saint posits.
Brody and Saint reminisce about the time The Beast got a concussion during a battle royal in Tampa last year. "A veteran wrestler named Butch Long dropped me on my head really hard on top of a stop sign," Brody says in a gruff voice. "Then someone else — can't remember who — kicked me in the mouth, busting my lip open."
On the ride back to Miami, Saint recalls that Brody's memory was completely shot. "Every half-hour, I had to recap what had happened to him, because he could not remember shit," Saint says with a wide grin. "Beast was on autopilot."
The tag team is in high spirits. "You have to pay your dues to win recognition in this industry," Saint says. "And that is what Beast and I have done. Now it's our time to make the best of our situation."
A cool breeze whips through the parking lot of Hot Stuff Grille. A wrestling ring has been erected near the outdoor picnic tables of the restaurant's outdoor dining area. Brody, raging like a mad dog, squares off against Marquez, who entered the ring wearing a Mexican sombrero and poncho. Fewer than a dozen spectators, most of them relatives and friends, fill two rows of folding chairs to watch the free show Saint set up to help promote his new business venture.
To have his peers working for free to lend him a hand is a testament to the close-knit fraternity of South Florida's wrestling scene. "Pablo has been doing this for 20 years," Saint reasons. "He's been to Japan, bro. He doesn't need to be here helping me. That just shows you how much respect and fire he has for wrestling."
Brody and Marquez go at it for a good three minutes before the ref counts both of them out for fighting outside the ring. The draw lets Brody keep his junior heavyweight title. Later, Saint joins three other wrestlers in the main event, a four-on-four battle against a team that features Marquez pupil Rodriguez, AKA Rufio Lionhawk, decked out in his bird mask.
The contest was scripted perfectly, and Saint and Lionhawk are the only wrestlers left standing. For a while, it looks like the smaller grappler will pull off the upset. He tags Saint with several drop kicks but can't get the pin. Eventually, Saint gains the upper hand and defeats Rodriguez. At the end of the show, Saint and Brody reflect on their rising stock on the circuit. The larger of the tag team duo just shot a commercial for an energy drink called Dyna-PEP. He and Beast are close to signing a contract to wrestle overseas, Saint adds.
"We've learned we can't get complacent," Saint says. "It hurts to train hard. I get so winded because I am so big. But I want promoters and other wrestlers to look at me and say I am the best big man, bar none. This is why Beast and I are busting our asses."
Brody, after shoving his smelly armpit in the face of a reporter, concurs. "Right now," he says, "we have to go out and make a name for ourselves. We are not even thinking about the WWE. I don't believe we are close to reaching the level we need to be at."
The hairy one admits that people are always asking him if he has a backup plan if wrestling doesn't pan out. "They don't understand that, for me, wrestling is like that girl that comes and goes in your life," Brody says. "Wrestling has always been there and will always be there through family deaths, breakups, and other personal issues."
Brody starts to walk back to the small bus where wrestlers are changing back into their normal clothes when a teenaged girl runs up to him. "Bad Beast!" she scolds him, pointing her finger at the Sasquatchian mauler. "Didn't your mom teach you manners?"
Brody drops his head and lunges at his female antagonist as if he were going to attack her. He screams: "Graaaaaaah!"
The young lady eeks and scampers off. Brody smiles.
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