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.
"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."
Next Gonzalez demonstrates the suplex on the much taller Abad, powering the wrestler straight up in front of him and then tossing him over his head, the pupil's heels arcing in the air like a ferris wheel before both crash to the canvas. When Abad tries, his first attempts at the move are shaky but successful.
Finally Gonzalez gets Abad against the ropes and "hits" him repeatedly on the side of the head. "Hold this arm here," he tells the panting kid. "Keep this one here. Show the people you're hurt. Catch your breath. You're tired. Don't get lazy." Then Gonzalez "hits" him some more, and after Abad grabs him by the shoulder and throws him into the opposite corner, they're finished for the night.
"Most guys would be lost, doing all that after two weeks," Gonzalez praises the beaming, red-faced Abad, who doesn't look the least bit disheartened by the beating his body has just taken.
"As you can see, this kid has the look," beams promoter Bill Brown. "He has something we can develop."
At about six-foot-three and 230 pounds, Abad looks capable of putting on a lot more bulk, and after only two weeks of training (twice a week, a few hours each session), he has already picked up an impressive array of moves. He's got another advantage as well: his face. Abad's prominent aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and long hair give him an almost stereotypically Native American look. It's the kind of distinctive look coveted in pro wrestling.
"I'll start with Jorge in three to six months," estimates SWF's booker George Barcelo, the man who creates most of the characters and "writes" the stories that are played out in the ring. (Running the angles, it's called.) "I'd have to look at him to make sure he's ready, then I'll come up with a character for him," says the hefty, goateed Barcelo, a full-time computer programmer and a former wrestler and promoter whose curly black hair falls halfway down his back. "According to what I see on him, he'll probably portray an Indian. I might call him Chief Little Wahoo or something like that."
That's one thing about pro wrestling, especially small-time shows: no shying away from racial and ethnic themes. Recent SWF programs, for example, have featured quite a bit of Latin bashing -- always avenged, naturally. During the most recent show in Homestead, Snot Dudley, the federation's so-called Caribbean Islands champion (who wears nerdy glasses and, yes, picks his nose), learned that his scheduled opponent, Johnny Torres, missed his plane in Puerto Rico and couldn't make the match. So Snot launched into a tirade against "bean burrito-eatin', Taco Bell-workin' punks."
At that, local Cuban-American boy Johnny Gonzalez (one of William Gonzalez's many stage names) leaped into the ring to challenge the stringy-haired Snot. "Cheech and Chong!" roared Snot, apparently unaware of any distinction between Mexicans and Cubans. "I'm gonna send you back to the border!"
To the hoots and howls of the largely black and Hispanic crowd, a good half of whose members were under the age of eighteen, Gonzalez angrily vowed to uphold the honor of "my fellow Latinos." An impromptu brawl commenced. "This Gonzalez character, whoever he is," intoned ringside commentator Playboy Bobby Davis (who moments earlier had narrowly escaped an attack by a fan outraged over his disparaging remarks about Homestead), "he ain't got no chance against Snot Dudley!"
Gonzalez, wearing a University of Miami tank top and jeans -- he wasn't "supposed" to wrestle tonight -- twisted Snot's massive arm. Snot poked at Gonzalez's eyes, Stooge-like, then lifted his reeling nemesis onto a turnbuckle. He was preparing to suplex him off the ropes when Gonzalez gave him a gourd-buster off the top rope, smashing Snot's nose into the canvas. After being subjected to a series of karate chops and kicks, Snot didn't want to play any more. Defiantly, he ducked through the ropes and walked out the back door of the building.
"Snot Dudley has left the arena! Snot Dudley is gone," tuxedoed emcee Bill Brown announced. "And the winner, ladies and gentlemen, is Johnny Gonzalez!" A chant went up: "S-W-F! S-W-F!" Gonzalez slapped high-fives on the kids crowded in the front row while a shocked Awesome Amy, the provocatively attired blond columnist for the newsletters Wrestling World and Wrestling Edge and an outspoken Snot booster, gripped the elaborate silver cross dangling between her artfully displayed breasts. Dry-ice fog billowed from behind a curtain, heralding the entrance of the next combatants.
The 27-year-old Gonzalez, who sports a goatee and long wavy hair, can't remember when he didn't want to be a pro wrestler. Still, he's happy to let the relentless demands of the quest for the top -- the endless self-hype, networking, traveling, and tanning -- take a back seat to teaching and appearing in local shows. "Wrestling gets in your blood," says the uncharacteristically plain-spoken and modest veteran of hundreds of matches, who grew up in Hialeah and attended a wrestling school in Orlando when he was 21. "Sure, it's not a normal thing to do for a living. A lot of guys keep coming back and getting their bodies pounded, but they don't want to do anything else. I really believe that to understand it right you have to get a psychiatrist."
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It's possible a psychiatrist could explain what it is about some men that causes them to drift from job to job for ten or fifteen years, getting paid $50 to trudge up a linoleum-paved aisle looking really mean, yelling "Shaddup!" to heckling kids, and getting thrown out of a wrestling ring onto a table. And then being flailed with a chain.
"Most wrestlers are lifelong wrestlers living out a dream," opines Alex Marvez, who used to cover the wrestling beat for the Miami Herald and who now writes for the Dayton Daily News. "The best most of them will do is become TV losers, jobbers, in the lingo. You appear on TV to get the shit beat out of you for $50. I know two wrestlers. One was a schoolteacher in North Miami Beach. I met them ten years ago, and they're still trying to make it. It's true that there are a few guys who are 40 and just now becoming successful. You can do it, but you have to persevere. I tell guys, 'Don't give up your day job.'"
That's just what Punk Rock's manager screamed at him last month in Homestead after Rock, a British skinhead, had his butt whipped for the seventh time by the noble Paul Adonis. "Go back to London, you washed-up wannabe-something!" yelled the manager, Trillionaire Ted Vernon, a swarthy Mr. Clean look-alike dressed in a sequined vest and brandishing a nightstick. Rock, prone in the middle of the ring after a latex-gloved "doctor" was summoned to "examine" him, attempted to rouse himself but was battered back by furious blows from the Trillionaire's nightstick. Finally emcee Bill Brown had to ask the referee to help Rock out of the ring as the low-end sound system blared heavy metal and Paul Adonis shook hands with admiring fans and signed autographs.
Sunshine Wrestling Federation's next show is Friday, June 6, at Ray'z Place, 1102 N Flagler Ave, Homestead. Tickets cost $10 ($8 for ages 12 and under). Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Call 246-8018.