Roots Rasslin'

At Tugboat Taylor's gym, would-be wrestlers are taught the eternal verities: It's more fun to be a heel, but heels always lose.

There are many things a professional wrestler can't afford to forget. One of them is: if you don't chew gum, someone's gonna get hurt -- and it might be you.mmmm Get a cottonmouth, lose communication with your opponent, get hurt. Got it? And when the ropes are coming at you at 90 mph -- or at least when it looks that fast to the audience, if you and your opponent are any good -- make sure you hit all three ropes knee-waist-shoulder at the same time. Ropes snap, turnbuckles come loose, and if your shoulder breaks the top rope while your feet are still moving, you're going to trip and flip, dude, right out of the ring and on to the top of your head. It's an accident that has killed people; don't let it happen to you.

These are just a few of the lessons imparted to apprentice wrestlers at Dickie "Tugboat" Taylor's School of Professional Wrestling, which convenes two nights a week in a sheet-metal shed east of downtown. When it comes to passing on his quarter-century's worth of hard-knock knowledge, Taylor, you might say, is a hands-on teacher.

Out in the 18-foot-by-18-foot ring, a normally mild-mannered (although impressively large) security guard named Dedric Clark roars as he holds Taylor against the ropes, hammering blows into his teacher's chest that make Taylor flop and spasm like a myocardial infarction victim being defibrillated.

A few feet from the ring, a skinny young national guardsman who "manages" an assortment of "bad guys" ignores the action as he and the Karate Kid take turns whacking each other over the head with a folding chair. In the ring, a loud, crashing blow to Taylor's sternum wrings an anguished scream from the veteran heavyweight. Taylor looks up from the rope and tells Clark, "You're still standing too close. Move your left foot back about a half a step."

Tugboat Taylor has been training neophyte wrestlers for more than seven years. Although he's a veteran of the World Wrestling Federation -- and every other wrestling circuit from Japan to the Mexican Triple-A -- Taylor prefers the local-league wrestling that once packed everything from high school gymnasiums to the Sam Houston Coliseum. "Big companies don't come to small places," he observes. "We need opportunities to show folks what the sport is really all about, the way it used to be."

To create those opportunities, Taylor first must create wrestlers. It's an 18-month to two-year process that includes everything from learning amateur (that is, "real") wrestling to practicing distracting the ref while your manager does dirty deeds. The tuition runs around $2,000. While a highly motivated student with a background in high school or collegiate wrestling might finish cheaper and quicker, Taylor's students agree that this answer to their lifelong dreams is a bargain.

Although reluctant to discuss the monetary cost of becoming a wrestler, Taylor is much more effusive about his plans for the nonprofit foundation he's trying to start to fight gangs and drugs, which he wants to call the Drug Free Wrestling Association.

Granted, these days almost everyone with a passion is convinced that kids who share their passion would never get involved with gangs. Some of the resulting ideas -- transforming taggers into muralists, for example -- made sense from the beginning and have proven effective. Others seem as goofy as, well, using professional wrestling to fight gangs and drugs.

Under closer scrutiny, however, Taylor's idea begins to seem less goofy. The theatrics and histrionics of professional wrestling, especially in the up-close school gymnasium matches that he intends to use as a backdrop for presentations, are certainly attention-getting. It's difficult to imagine a jaded, at-risk teen maintaining a mask of aloofness while being on the receiving end of a say-no-to-crack motivational lecture delivered by a deranged, muscular, quite possibly dangerous egomaniac in tights.

Similarly, much of the appeal of gang membership for identity-seeking teens is the ample opportunity it provides for macho posturing and being the center of attention. As anyone even slightly familiar with the sport knows, nobody can top a pro wrestler at macho posturing and being the center of attention. Maybe the idea of getting kids involved with an activity that centers around intense physical activity, ritualized and restrained violence, and flamboyant assumed identities isn't so goofy after all. There's at least one cop who thinks so. Of course, he's a wrestler.

"Tug's got a good idea with the gang intervention," says the burly Harris County sheriff's deputy who wrestles as Danny Law, the Top Cop. "He wants to expand it into a youth center where the kids can learn amateur wrestling, which flat doesn't exist in Texas, even in the colleges." (Although he says the sheriff's department is "totally cool" about his avocation, Law prefers that he be identified in print by his ring name.)

The Top Cop, in fact, has mixed youth programs, law enforcement and professional wrestling for several years. "I've been wrestling for three or four years now," he explains. "I got started when I was a volunteer with the La Porte police department. Tug's people came in to do a fundraiser for our youth program and I started working out with him. I've been in about 50 matches since then."

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