Lords of the Ring
Pro wrestling is an episodic soap opera of overdramatized Shakespearean traits like courage, loyalty, treachery, cowardice and betrayal—to the tune of more than $500 million a year.
ATLANTA MAGAZINE | JULY 1997
I DARE Ted Turner to fire me!” Eric Bischoff, chief heel and subversive mastermind of World Championship Wrestling, is flexing his mouth. He props his high-top sneakers on his desk, leans back and stretches open that “You’re welcome! Oh, you’re welcome for loving me!” telegenic grin of his, flipping back a snatch of hair as black as his heart. It puffs insolently over a cheeky, cosmetically perfect face that looks like it was pasted onto his shoulders from a Sears catalog, men’s underwear section. A face wrestling fans can really hate, or love, or love to hate.
Presently, Bischoff is late for a staff meeting regarding a card at the soon-to-be-demolished Omni. Next Monday’s event will be the latest round in WCW’s Nielsen ratings battle with archnemesis World Wrestling Federation and the last match ever in that cavernous and august institution. Everyone will be there: “Hulkster,” “Macho Man,” “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. There is even a rumor that “Billionaire Ted” may make an appearance to personally fire Bischoff, who in the story line of this testosterone-loaded soap opera is head of both WCW and the apocalyptic-sounding New World Order, an upstart federation of cutthroats and turncoats who are bent on taking over WCW.
“He probably can’t be here, but I’m at least gonna try to get him to fire me on videotape,” Bischoff says.
Of course, New World Order is just another link in WCW’s perpetual chain yank, albeit probably the first ever to exploit the long-standing desire of fans (or “marks” as they used to be called) to see one wrestling alliance battle another. Thus at the time, Bischoff’s NWO plot twist—through which he would now orchestrate his own ignominious exile—had propelled WCW into a 30-week drubbing of rival World Wrestling Federation, broadcast on USA Network. His live Monday Nitro show on TNT is the top-rated prime-time wrestling program on TV, the No. 1 basic cable show every Monday night, and consistently in the top 15 cable shows each week.
Bischoff has even scripted himself to near deification, or damnation, depending on which gang you root for. “I am, in fact, head of both WCW and NWO, and it’s a beautiful world! But now there are a lot of people,” he says, lowering to a conspiratorial tone, “ … a lot of people who say I have too much power.” Indeed, just the previous week a woman called up WCW’s sizzling hot line to vow that if something were not done about Bischoff, she would call her congressman.
Bischoff’s impending staff meeting looms heavily as well. Can’t let any reporters in. Wouldn’t be professionally responsible. “Plus, it would make the people in that room so damn nervous, they wouldn’t get anything done,” he says, allowing only that there are some critical things to decide, such as who will get to interview for the camera, who will wrestle and, presumably, who will win. Because it’s all fake, right?
At this he bristles, not because he has become a victim of his own illusion, per se, but perhaps because he knows his guys really do beat holy hell out of one another from time to time. And because, well, what kind of bad guy would Bischoff make if he didn’t carry over his prickliness with the wrestling “press” (which has been known to write its reports before the matches happen) into the mainstream media once in a while?
But still, the guy is a bit of an enigma. A former door-to-door meat salesman, Bischoff can give as lovely a definition of suspension of disbelief as any tenured professor of literature. In the next breath come such profundities as, “I’m a black belt in karate. Okay? And I get in a bar fight every couple of years just to make sure I haven’t lost my edge.”
Well, he is at least winning his fights in TV land, virtually coldcocking rival World Wrestling Federation by hiring away its stock of aging superstars such as Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage and counterprogramming them right up against their former employers every Monday night to smashing success. At the same time, he is cultivating new superstars like the 7-foot-4, 450-pound gargantuan known as “The Giant” right alongside the diminutive, high-flying Rey Mysterio Jr., who at 5-foot-5 and 165 pounds is showing wrestling fans that the game is no longer strictly about hairy-backed power, chemically fed physiques, or even the almighty gimmick.
“I don’t care if a guy approaches the ring stoically or if he comes in wearing pink latex tights with a bull’s-eye on his butt. The gimmick really doesn’t matter,” Bischoff says. “Everyone knows the Maytag repairman wears a white hat, but that doesn’t have anything to do with him being a Maytag repairman. The question is, can you make them remember you?”
Can a guy draw? Has he got “stroke”?
IT’S MONDAY morning, and The Giant wants a smoke. “Marlboro? Anybody got Marlboros?” he asks, holding out two hands the size of catcher’s mitts as several maintenance workers look up, drop their jaws and reach for their pockets. Giant has just finished a promotional spot upstairs at 96 Rock, and he needs to blow away a little stress. Keeps him sharp.
Once outside in his black stretch limo, the 7-foot-4, 450-pound man-mountain extends his black-booted legs half the length of the cab, pushes back his silky Nazarene hair and flicks an ash out the window. “I think sometimes people look at me like I’m not real,” he says. When Giant later ducks his head through the doorway of the control room at WCNN’s 680 The Fan, the female producer actually screams.
In the view of many people, WCW’s Giant has the potential to become wresting’s next “franchise,” the same way a bass-strumming, born-again Christian named Terry Bollea popularized wrestling in the ’80s by billing himself as Hulk Hogan. Some observers have even suggested that it’s time for the older guys, like Hogan, to begin bowing out to the younger stars, like Giant, for the good of the sport.
“It’s not a matter of stepping aside. It wouldn’t mean anything if they just stepped aside,” says The Giant. “It’s up to us younger guys to take it.”
The women, most of whom play “valets” in the series, are equally imposing; everybody flexing, pumping, primping and chatting as boobs and biceps burst forth like spring on Mount Olympus.
One may assume a guy his size could take whatever he wants. But in this world of giant men sheer size cannot be one’s principal distinction. And simply growling like Chewbacca and stomping around the ring in a Flintstone-like singlet won’t get anybody’s attention. Giant’s character does have all those elements, of course, yet it has been combined with one more: pedigree.
Ever since signing him to a contract, Bischoff and company have billed the former collegiate basketball player as the son of Andre the Giant, the legendary French-born Brobdingnagian who wrestled up until his death four years ago.
In reality, however, Giant is the son of a Savannah River Site nuclear plant engineer from Aiken, S.C. His real name is Paul Wight. His wife is from Kennesaw. He studied philosophy and describes himself as “what happens when you shave Sasquatch and send him to college.” But the similarities with Andre the Giant have been close enough to work with. Both men were born with a pituitary disorder characterized by exceptionally large hands and engine-block jaws. Andre could pass a silver dollar through his ring; Wight’s wedding band looks like a napkin holder. Wight can easily devour 25 tacos in a sitting; Andre reportedly once drank 127 beers in a single evening. And thus somehow, somewhere back in the genetic goo pool that predestines men of gargantuan stature to a kind of grotesque fame inside an 18-by-18 ring, these two men-among-men are akin. But blood relatives they sure as hell are not.
“Yes,” Wight tells a man calling into 680 The Fan, “That’s a long and heartbreaking story, and I … I really can’t go into it. . . . But yes, the genealogy is there.”
“Okay, well I was just wonderin’,” says the caller. “Cause I’d heard you was Andre’s boy.”
Wight is so damn good, so fast with a quip or anecdote (like the time he was 12 and stole his first kiss from a young pixie at the local roller rink but got arrested because he was 6-foot-2 with a 5 o’clock shadow) that the hosts keep him on-air for an extra 10 minutes. The Giant dances lithely between real time and prime time, telling funnies on himself, speaking honestly about the discomforts of being so large, seething at that “disease” known as New World Order.
Back in the limo again, The Giant heads for his hotel room to get some rest, or maybe eat a live pig. Who knows? But in any case, he is clearly unsettled, the philosophy major suffering a slight pang of remorse for injured truth. “Okay, brother, here it is short and sweet. When I first came out, they said I was the son of Andre and all this. There is no connection. And, man, I really don’t like doing that, but the guy was a real fan. Okay?” The Giant sighs and frowns. “I hate doing that. But I’m just . . . just doing my job.”
BY 6 O’CLOCK that evening the catacombs of The Omni are teeming with men of immense musculature. Ponytails flow over stone wall trapezoids. Small leather fanny packs ride on horselike buttocks. The women, most of whom play “valets” in the series, are equally imposing; everybody flexing, pumping, primping and chatting as boobs and biceps burst forth like spring on Mount Olympus.
This is the backstage area, nearest ring to wrestling’s inner sanctum—the locker room—where real journalists are seldom allowed. And even here in the hallway a flash photo draws irate, hostile inquiry from scowling wrestlers, as if any unfamiliar camera might steal their souls.
“Who are you with? What’s this for?” asks a squatty, balding man in a flowing robe and shiny wrestling boots. His name is Kevin Sullivan. He wrestles as “The Taskmaster” and holds eminence as WCW’s booker. A promotion’s booker makes many of the “creative” decisions regarding the story line, even determining the outcome of the matches.
If you are a wrestling fan, this would be either heaven or hell (depending on one’s degree of delusion). Here the story line breaks down as “The Big Boys” break bread together at a one-room buffet. Here they function less like warring cults and more like a single, well-organized subculture. A brotherhood of thieves who are out to steal your disbelief.
Hulk Hogan, who has for the past decade been wrestling’s ultimate baby face but recently sold his soul to the NWO, is skulking along the concrete corridor. He is grunting, not shaking too many hands, trying hard to look like a villainous prick. Golden boy charmer Ric Flair, “the dirtiest man in pro wrestling,” is wading through the flesh, glad-handing everyone. He’s sidelined for the evening with a shoulder injury but has nonetheless flown in from Charlotte to tape an interview. At 48, Flair is wrestling’s ultimate hanger-on, or “icon” as it’s called in the business.
“They [WWF] made the mistake of thinking they couldn’t build a future with the older guys,” says Flair. Despite injuries, despite stretch marks that read like a road map of better years, and despite or perhaps because of a shock of blond hair that has long since gone the color of a neon banana, Flair can still “romp and stomp” with the best of them. The guy still draw’s.
“My interview? Oh, you know, I just invited all the women in Atlanta between the ages of 18 and 22 to meet me at Jocks & Jills after the show.”
At a table just behind the main curtain The Giant is in a hot game of cribbage with The Assassin. Several grapplers are standing enthralled by a computer that is poised to monitor the upcoming chat on WCWs web site, which will draw 600-700 fans on-line during tonight’s card and averages millions of hits per month. Mexican high-flier Rey Mysterio Jr. is waiting his turn at a chiropractor’s table. When a photographer asks to take Mysterio’s picture, the wiry, cinnamon-skinned kid beams with kinetic energy, then suddenly says, “Oh wait! Let me get my mask!”
And if the great ones are here, so are the would-bes, 15 or 20 of them hanging out by the loading docks, wandering the halls. Some hope to land a part in tonight’s show, small bits like breaking up a “fight” or being somebody’s punching bag. One rather massive fellow sits tilted back in his chair against the wall. He identifies himself simply as Horseshoe. Why? Because (he doffs his ball cap) he’s got a damn horseshoe shaved into his head, of course. ’Shoe is not on contract with WCW yet, but by most accounts he is one of the hottest prospects down at WCWs training facility, the “Power Plant.” Yet he had never wrestled before trying out and played virtually no organized sports as a kid.
“We didn’t have much money for those kinds of things,” he says, smirking. “I had kind of a rough upbringing.”
“Ha! Sounds like my story,” snorts a like-bodied behemoth holding up the wall next to ’Shoe. Anywhere else he’d be a real eye-catcher, one of those Turtle Waxed gorillas you see in the grocery store checkout wearing parachute pants, a Gold’s Gym sweatshirt and an orange tan. But here the two are simply boys in school, soaking up the walk, the carriage, the nuances of their mentors, as upstairs The Omni opens its doors on the casting call for Deliverance, and downstairs the backstage corridor fills with the stench of cigar smoke, liniment and ego.
Hogan and his closest ally in the New World Order, Macho Man Randy Savage, emerge from the locker room for a photo shoot with a German sports magazine. Full studio backdrop, glaring lights and whirring motor drives. Macho sneers and Hogan flexes his famous “pythons,” which, compared to the glory years when he first threw Sylvester Stallone over the top rope in Rocky III, are now more like really nice garden hoses.
“W’sup, brudda?” Macho says, extending a black-gloved hand. “Is this for a magazine, cause it’ll have to be short.” He’s draped in a heavily fringed outfit, black do-rag and Spandex tights tucked into his cowboy boots. His blade sunglasses have MACHO emblazoned across the eyes and are so dark, he can hardly see to sign a backstage cook’s program. Macho, a former minor-league catcher, has admitted that he experimented with steroids at one point in his career, and his top-heavy build, black outfit and boots make him look like a cartoon bull in high heels.
Asked about the man who lured him away from WWF, asked about his boss’s much-touted impact on WCW, he growls, “Bischoff? He ain’t done nothin’! He didn’t do nothin’ but wire me up even more. I thought I was wired up before. I’ll be ready for a condo on the moon pretty soon. Ohhhh yeah!”
But why come to a promotion that traditionally has played second fiddle to WWF? “Listen, brudda. I been four times world champion, and I didn’t want to win another world championship where Hulk Hogan wasn’t. All right? I wanted to be in the snake pit again. And all the snakes are right here.”
IN FEBRUARY 1996 all the snakes were hissing. World Wrestling Federation, headed by Vince McMahon Jr., filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Ted Turner and WCW were trying to monopolize professional wrestling. Soon after Bischoff began airing his Monday Nitro series directly opposite WWF’s Monday Night Raw, McMahon also took out an ad in The New York Times, claiming that Turner was waging a vendetta to run him out of business.
“Junior is a good name for Vince McMahon,” says Bischoff, referring to WWF’s now second-class status in the ratings war. “For the first time in his life he’s had to deal with competition. His creative ability is being tested, so he’s resorting to drastic measures….”
Neither McMahon nor “his people” responded to repeated phone calls and a faxed request for an interview, but Bischoff says WWF has even engaged in a letter-writing campaign to top Turner management, criticizing WCW for excessive violence and showing blood on camera. “He’s a hypocrite, criticizing us for the very things he does,” says Bischoff. Independently produced WWF has also filed lawsuits claiming that WCW, which is owned by a deep-pocketed media mogul with his own broadcast facilities, has an unfair competitive advantage.
“In his [McMahon’s] mind he owned this business,” says Bischoff, although he concedes that it was McMahon who in the early ’80s broke the provincial boundaries of wrestling by gathering the top talent in each regional promotion and consolidating them into one national television syndicate. McMahon juiced up the production with loud music, fog machines and pyrotechnics. He copped a few spots with MTV and lured five-and-dime celebrities like bad girl Cyndi Lauper into the story line. He called the whole farce WrestleMania, and the modern style of “rock and wrestle,” of which WCW is really just a variation, was born. Ironically, in the end, the once-powerful regional promoters accused McMahon of practicing the same monopolizing tactics he now accuses Turner and WCW of engaging in.
But the fact is wrestling has been an integral part of Turner television since its inception. Along with Braves baseball, wrestling once provided ratings to buoy the Superstation through its sink-or-swim years in the early ’70s. “I knew Ted when you didn’t have to have an appointment to know Ted,” says Joe Hamilton, who now runs WCW’s Power Plant but originally came to Atlanta to wrestle as “The Assassin.” For years he was one of the most memorable heels on Georgia Championship Wrestling, a precursor to World Championship Wrestling.
WCW was born as a promotion in 1988 when Turner acquired the assets of a struggling East Coast promotion. He hired a succession of producers, including former wrestler “Cowboy” Bill Watts, one of Bischoff s more controversial predecessors. Claiming he could revitalize WCW at a time when wrestling had lost much of its mid-’80s stroke, Watts made numerous unpopular changes to the format, including taking away mats around the ring and eliminating from-the-top-rope and over-the-top-rope maneuvers.
Insiders say Watts was also notoriously mean-mouthed and was fired after making comments in an industry newsletter called Pro Wrestling Torch, in which he stated some rather exclusionary views on blacks in wrestling. They say a wrestling reporter faxed a copy of Watts’ comments to TBS executive Henry Aaron, and Watts was fired the next day.
“But it wasn’t just because of his views on blacks. Watts personally hired them [black wrestlers],” says one industry insider, who is black. “It was because Bill was an asshole to everybody. And so some people, people who are still there today, used what Bill said to set him up by promising that reporter exclusives if he’d fax Aaron the newsletter.”
In any case, wrestling has always been a cutthroat business, one in which a promoter might bribe local commissioners or pay kick-backs to the host arena to keep marauding promoters out of his territory. It’s always had a market and was in 1994 a roughly $500 million international industry. Any controversy—imagined, real or somewhere in between—adds to its drawing power.
But how many times can this formula be repeated? How many times can wrestling fans watch the good guys and the bad guys open with a clinch, bounce off the ropes a few times and go for 14 halfhearted pins until one guy is disqualified, or takes a dive, or gets an opponent in his signature move? How many times can a “historic night for wrestling” end with several fellows charging from behind the curtain to break loose “all hell” as the announcer says, “See you next week!”
In fact, the ring activity would seem to have very little to do with wrestling’s overall appeal. It is instead a running gag, an episodic pratfall full of overdramatized Shakespearean traits like courage, loyalty, treachery, cowardice and betrayal. When Sting descends from the auditorium rafters on a cable to swat at NWO marauders with his baseball bat, it is classic deus ex machina. Call it cheesy. Call it hilarious. But don’t call it dumb. By some estimates WCW grossed anywhere from $40 million to $60 million last year.
“Entertainment always comes down to good guy/bad guy, good thing/bad thing,” says Bischoff. “And I’ve always said wrestling is the purest form of entertainment on television, second only to the 11 o’clock news.”
But do fans think it’s real?
“Okay. You know and I know,” says “Diamond” Dallas Page, as he catches his breath between sets at Main Event Fitness. “But there’s about 30 percent of the fans who will stand there and argue with you… with me… that it’s all 100 percent [real].”
Page, a former nightclub manager who wouldn’t give his age, is now one of WCW’s most popular wrestlers, a cigar-chomping, butt-stomping thug who actually started out as a manager. He was one of the first established wrestling personalities to go through the Power Plant training program and is now known as one of the hardest-working men in the sport. Recently, he taught himself to type using the Mario Teaches Typing game (“that little dude that bounces”) and has taken his character on-line, cultivating his presence in wrestling chat rooms, news-groups and through E-mail correspondence. “I’m the pioneer in cyberspace,” he says proudly.
But then, Page says everything proudly. His tough-guy, egomaniacal shtick is nonstop. When his brother came down for a visit, Page drew such a crowd in public that his brother quipped, “Jeez, man, you’re like being with Mickey Mouse.”
“It’s kinda like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny,” Page says in his roiling New Jersey accent. “Do you have kids? Huh? Well are you gonna go home and tell them there’s no Santa Claus? Go home right now and tell them there’s no Easter Bunny? See? See what I mean?”
Though much of the action is admittedly scripted, occasionally the action does cross a dangerous line. Perhaps the industry’s most infamous case of extra-credit ass kicking happened in 1993 when WCW mainstay and Rome, Ga., native Arn Anderson brawled in a British hotel with WWF wrestler Sid Vicious. Sid stabbed Anderson 20 times with a pair of scissors, while Anderson managed to stab Sid four times. Recently, two of WCW’s highest-profile wrestlers got into a fight in which one of them lost some teeth.
“It happens more often than you’d think,” says “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, who once lived in an apartment with five other wrestlers. “But it’s usually best just to let ’em fight it out… until one of ’em starts to get hurt.”
Publications like Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Almanac and Book of Facts are a weird blend of these inside realities with industry hokum. On one page fans might read about Ric Flair’s overseas match with legendary Asian wrestler Antonio Inoki, which, of course, Inoki, who once fought Muhammad Ali and is so revered in Japan that they made him a senator, won. On the next page they can read about the wrestler who was waylaid by a gang of Marines, or how another one shot himself in the head after a match, or was arrested for drug possession, or rape, or heaving a boulder through a McDonald’s window. They can read about McMahon’s acquittal on steroid distribution charges, or about real-life feuds that are settled back-stage, in hotel lobbies and, yes, even in the ring.
“It’s pretty well known that Hulk Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper really don’t like each other,” says Bischoff, who convinced the two superstars to get into the ring together for two matches—Piper winning the first, Hogan taking the rematch. “But winning isn’t everything in this sport. Hulk may have beat Piper, but that just makes people want to see Piper back in the ring with Hulk again… They [fans] find themselves investing a lot emotionally in good versus bad.”
Doug Dellinger, WCW’s head of security, says, “I’ve seen wrestiers stabbed, cut and punched by fans. There was this one guy at a match in the Dallas Sportatorium, an old man in a wheelchair. He had his own nurse and an oxygen mask. All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see him stand up and start waving a gun at one of the wrestlers. The guy was gonna shoot him.”
“Just got pissed.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve been spit on, scratched, punched. I’ve had my jaw broken,” says manager Jimmy Hart as he peers from behind the curtain during a TV taping in Rome, Ga. Out on the floor the capacity crowd hangs over the guardrail like one big, contiguous potbelly. The fans are screaming, yelling, slapping at wrestlers who bring their brawl to the floor mats. Hart, dressed in his trademark red shoes and a royal purple blazer, watches complacently. “Back in the ’70s, when I was managing the Iron Sheik, there was a guy who came down to the auditorium to shoot me. Turned out his son had been killed over there in the Middle East, and the man was just really distraught. The police caught him out in the parking lot with a rifle.”
Hacksaw Duggan, a two-by-four toting, flag-waving baby face, says he was once sued by a fan after an exchange of blows. “You come out of the ring, and you’re all fired up, and someone hits you, and you just react. Bam! Bam! Well, shit, we get hit harder than that every match. But I broke his front orbital socket. They had to operate through the roof of the guy’s mouth,” says Duggan, slurping a lollipop backstage as he chats up Robin the Ring Girl, a blond, leggy single mom who says she is working her way through chiropractic college. Robin’s job consists primarily of strutting around the ring between matches to keep the crowd “interested,” then gathering the wrestler’s garb as they fling it out of the ring. Occasionally, she pecks one of the pimply teenage boys at ringside on the cheek.
“Guy sued me for $30,000,” continues Duggan. “I learned a hard lesson from that one.” When Duggan first started wrestling, 18 years ago, there was no such thing as security to protect wrestlers from the diehard, the deluded or the deranged. “We just had guys standing by ringside to break up any fights or pull people out of the ring,” he says. “But once in a while they’ll still try to climb up there with you. Of course, once they get up in the ring, they’re bought and paid for. Then you can have some fun.”
SHORTLY BEFORE REALITY makes the scene, the two dozen men gathered in a drafty brick warehouse off Chattahoochee Avenue roll their necks and take deep, nervous breaths. Some do a few lousy jumping jacks or struggle to touch their toes. They have come from all over the country in pursuit of a common goal, paying $250 dollars apiece for a three-day tryout at “the Harvard” of wrestling schools: WCW’s Power Plant. It is for some the crucible of a lifelong dream and for others a laughable delusion.
“I don’t know who the HELL you thought you was when you sat at home on your COUCH in front of the TV and THOUGHT you could do what we do! But you ain’t NOBODY! You hear me? ’Cause this is where The Big Boys play! Get your ass down on that bucket! 26… 27… 28. Touch it! When I say squat, you SQUAT! And I wanna see your ass touchin’ that goddamn bucket! Hey, where’d Steroid Head go?”
“He’s in the bathroom again.”
“All right! We’re weedin’ out the fags quick!”
The man yelling at them, or the man doing most of the yelling, is a puggish, fatigue-wearing former Coast Guardsman who wrestles as “Sarge” and is also one of WCW’s senior trainers. Sarge is assisted by three other senior trainers, including Power Plant director Joe Hamilton. There to lend a hand are about 10 other wrestlers, some of whom are already under contract. The others have passed their initial tryout and have been invited to pay $3,000 for a six-month training program. After that they are free to sign on with any promotion that will have them, or go back to their day jobs. It is a long-shot existence, to be sure, and “weedin’ out the fags” at tryouts is apparently one of the program’s few perks.
“Wrestling is a thinking man’s game. You gotta know where the camera’s at, where your opponent is, how to land and how the crowd’s reacting.”
One tryout hopeful is a 6-foot-9, 385-pound butterball named Vince Bradley. He’s a cable layer by day who wrestles in small promotions as “O.B.D.” (One Big Dude) on weekends. “This is my last shot,” he said during warm-ups, a gentle Southern drawl belying his coming fate. “If I don’t make it here, I’m giving it up. I’m gonna go home and raise my kids, be a real daddy for a change.”
Next to him is Angelo Silano, who says his friends up north nicknamed him “The Mongoloid” for his shaved head and tanklike build. But here he’s just a squatty Connecticut Yankee in T-Rex’s court. “I don’t know if this is the place for me or not. I’m kinda small. Jesus, look at that guy,” he says, as the 7-foot-plus T-Rex walks by, rubbing his black Mohawk haircut. “I was so nervous, I didn’t eat breakfast.”
Another fellow, sporting a magnificently stupid buzz cut, heralds himself as “The New York Nightmare.” Standing next to him is a former Jacksonville State tight end calling himself “The Beefmaster.” The two Cromwell brothers have driven a broken-down truck all the way from Corpus Christi, Texas, arriving under unexplained circumstances very late and in dubious attire. One of them is wearing a hot pink tank top. His brother has on cutoff khakis, dress socks and Hush Puppies. The trainers roll their eyes and shake their heads.
“All right, get on in here, gawd dammit,” one of them says.
A heavily pumped bodybuilder, telltale acne dotting his otherwise buffed body, has earned the nickname “Steroid Head.” “I don’t know how much you paid for that body,” Sarge screams, as the guy’s massive thighs start to fail. “But you ought ask for your money back!”
The principal culling instrument at the Power Plant is the jump squat. Wanna-bes stand themselves in a circle around Sarge and the boys—’Shoe, Hardbody, T-Rex, Colt Rivers and, at 42, senior screamer Pez Whatley—and lower themselves to a full squat position, their arms thrust forward, before springing to their toes. Here in cardiovascular hell the first set of 50 squats is followed by 25 push-ups, then another set of 50 squats, 25 more push-ups and so on for the next two and a half hours. Nonstop, until grown men begin to cry, faint, puke, pass out, cramp up and waddle across the mats like constipated ducks. As the men begin to cheat, 5-gallon buckets are positioned under their butts to measure the proper squat depth.
At squat number 43, O.B.D. topples backward with a thud. On the eighth pushup, he quits, shakes his head and, after catching a fat breath, quietly removes himself to the front office. “At least now I’ll be able to see my son some more,” he says, on the verge of tears. “I guess I sort of came here to fail.”
Back in the gym New York Nightmare is washed out at the picnic table near the soda machine. He is being interviewed by a CNN reporter when Sarge walks by. “Did you quit? Then what are you still doing here?”
“My leg…” Nightmare points to his knee brace. “And I broke my wrist a while back, and it never healed, and, uh… the push-ups…”
“I don’t give a fuck! If you’re a quitter, then get your stuff together and get the hell out of my gym.”
Nightmare nods as the reporters back away from him.
Horseshoe is standing over a pasty-looking guy from Salt Lake City, hauling him into push-up position by the back of his ratty green sweatshirt. “C’mon, boy! You can’t even cheat and do ’em right,” ’Shoe looks up and winks, then hoists the fellow to his feet.
“Thirsty,” the guy mumbles.
“WHAT?!” ‘Shoe screams, his coarse U of hair glistening with sweat. Originally, a Vietnam vet shaved the crazy pattern into his head. But now that he’s got standing contract offers from both major promotions, it takes a certain stylist one full hour twice a month to keep him looking horseshoey. “You’re THIRSTY?!”
“You ain’t doin’ nothing any of these other guys ain’t doin’!” screams Pez.
“Thirsty…” the guy repeats, groveling, near delirium. ‘Shoe pushes him down until his ass hits the bucket, then yanks him back up by the collar’.
“Jesus CHRIST!” the guy snaps. “All I want is a DRINK!” And at that, ’Shoe and Pez and Hardbody are clobbering him verbally, harrying him like pack wolves over a three-legged mutt.
Rejected, exhausted, the guy later sits sobbing on a bench in the dressing room. His name is Danny. He’s married with four kids, and says he saved up just enough money for the plane trip and his tryout fee. He had walked across town from the airport to the gym. “I’ve watched this all my life on TV. There ain’t a move these guys do that I don’t know,’’ he says, then buries his reddened eyes in a towel. Next to him, Steroid Head sits cramping on the bench, moaning. He’s a two-time quitter already, but the trainers keep letting him ease back into the ranks because he’s “got the look.” On his third trip back into the foray, Sarge makes Head lay down on his back and wiggle his arms and legs while repeating, “Sir, I’m a dying cockroach!”
“We’ll get rid of him tomorrow,” Sarge later says, foretelling a repeat of this morning’s session. “But my point is not ego-driven. It’s to push them harder than they ever thought they could go, so when their mind says, ‘I can’t,’ that heart is still in there saying, ‘I can.’ ” Sarge quaffs a gulp of gooey pink protein mix. “Wrestling is a thinking man’s game. You gotta know where the camera’s at, where your opponent is, how to land and how the crowd’s reacting. That’s why I’m so hard on ’em. We’re looking for guys who can think under extreme physical stress. Plus, I know what it’s like to want it that bad,” says Sarge, who once drove to Alberta, Canada, to get in a promotion.
After the morning break Sarge will run the guys off the ring ropes for several hours, and at the end of three days only a few of them will be left. But even they may not be invited back for the training program. All of them, however, will be black-and-blue from the hip to the shoulder, or passing blood, or reaching for painkillers or the nearest thing cold. Ice packs. Beer. It won’t matter. They don’t matter.
But for a moment they did matter. They played with “The Big Boys,” as WCW’s wrestlers are fond of referring to themselves. Tom, a mild mannered dumpling from Iowa Falls, had actually made it through 200 squats and about 100 push-ups, each one pounded out on cowlike teats that, squashed in repose, left big, ugly sweat blots on the mat. As the third man to wash out, however, he’s generated some interest from a Comedy Central camera crew.
“Sabane,” he says, huffing and toweling his forehead. His eyes brighten, and his Humpty-Dumpty shoulders seize forward toward the camera, arms bowing outward from his hard-won WCW T-shirt. “I thought I might call myself Sabane… if I’d made it.”
“I just… well, I thought it sounded tough.”
He inches toward the camera, unblinking, gaining strength and wind as he talks about how he has the heart for this but not quite the body, not just yet. Trainer Mike Wenner edges in to share the doughboy’s momentary limelight. He praises his heart, puts his arm around him and says something about a “learning experience.” Sabane nods his head.
“I’ll know what to expect next time. I will definitely be back,” he says, wiping the sweat from his twinkling eyes. “But I feel proud, you know, ’cause I pushed myself harder than I ever… ”
Imagining the size of his heart and the bigness of his balls, Sabane continues to work the reporters as a truly Jurassic sight rumbles past. It is T-Rex; sweating, dripping, a couple of zillion squats to his credit these days. Rex pauses to survey the activity below, the cameras—the agents of fame—then grunts and waves a dismissive backhand at the entire scene. “Absolutely pathetic!” ✦