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.

Law has found that both the psychological and physical aspects of wrestling can also come in handy for a warder at the county jail. But in the ring, ironically, the Top Cop employs his skills as a "bad guy." It's a role he attacks with relish.

Another student who sees wrestling as both the most fun he's ever had and an opportunity to spread a personal motivational message is Darrell Antone, the Karate Kid. The Kid is far smaller than most of the wrestlers at Taylor's school. He's also one of the most respected.

"Darrell broke a guy's arm last year," someone mutters sotto voce as Antone leaps from a turnbuckle and clotheslines a much larger foe to the mat. "He didn't mean to do it, but he's just so damn fast."

Fast is an understatement: the Kid doesn't move so much as he flows, like mercury. If a dance company could convince Antone that ballet is an incredibly macho and heterosexual thing to do, it's not unreasonable to think he might become the black Baryshnikov. He'd rather be known as the Karate Kid -- the little wrestler who's not afraid of anything.

"The main thing I'd like to do with wrestling is get across to little people that it's not a handicap being small," Antone explains. "You just don't let on that you're scared. You expect to get hit, but you can really freak a bigger guy out by coming at him. It's just an attitude; when you're little like me, your attitude determines whether people respect you or not."

Antone has worked hard for respect. He was raised in Harlem's Manhattanville Projects, and his father's job with Amtrak financed an education at the prestigious Russian and American High School near Columbia University. "Tuition is around $300 a week, so I didn't dare mess up," says Antone. "My folks got me started on karate when I was 15; I was already pretty disciplined, but it taught me more. Since then I've studied kickboxing, aikido, tae kwon do, dojo."

Since he works as an unarmed security guard at an apartment complex on a less-than-pristine stretch of Bellaire Boulevard, Antone's education in martial arts occasionally becomes useful -- and, no doubt, surprising to parking-lot prowlers who peg the clean-cut, slightly built Antone as an easy mark. Before getting in the ring, the Kid matter-of-factly described a recent incident. "A couple of nights ago, three guys jumped me. One got away. I mixed the other two up pretty good."

It's easy to see that the Kid feels really bad about the one who got away, as he takes out his frustrations on KILT radio personality Tommy Fontaine. This is Antone's favorite kind of opponent -- Fontaine only outweighs the Kid by 80 or 100 pounds.

The routine that this mismatched duo is working on tonight is a little extreme, even for them. But, to use a high compliment shared by wrestlers and motion-picture special-effects crews, it's a good gag. Fontaine is pinned against the ropes by his much smaller opponent, who suddenly steps back and lashes out with a lightning-quick karate kick to Fontaine's muscular shoulder. It's impossible to tell, even from a few feet away, if it's the force of the kick or Fontaine's own will that propels him over the top rope to bounce against the edge of the ring and on down to the concrete floor, a good ten feet below the top rope.

Keeping in mind Taylor's oft-repeated dictum that wrestlers must play to all four sides of the audience, the Kid struts in the middle of the ring and jeers at the imaginary crowd. When he notices that the battered and stunned Fontaine has staggered to his feet, the Karate Kid takes two quick steps and dives between the top and middle ropes, sailing out of the ring like a raptor in a dive, then slamming into Fontaine's chest with such a mighty blow from his left forearm that his hapless opponent falls to the concrete again.

By the sixth or eighth time they've practiced the gag, the smile on Taylor's face has gone from approving to blissful. Stunts such as this are what make professional wrestling. Holler "fake" if you must; there's still no denying that this and many other maneuvers, however well choreographed, are as dangerous and demanding as anything found in most any other sport. It's easy to see why Taylor later remarks, "I wish I had more guys with Tommy's attitude."

Like most of the wrestlers at the gym, these grueling workouts are the culmination of a lifelong dream for Fontaine.

"I grew up in Dickinson," the muscular disc jockey explains. "Every Saturday night I was watching Paul Boesch from 10:30 to midnight, and every Sunday morning. I don't remember not wanting to be a wrestler. I've had people laughing at me for 14 years." Finally, the laughter got to Fontaine. "After I started working at KILT, I went home and someone asked me if I had started wrestling. When I said no, they laughed and said they'd known I never would. So when I got back to Houston I tracked Tug down. I'd heard he worked out at Gold's Gym, so I called them and they had the number down here." After a year of training, Taylor decided Fontaine was ready for a match at the Sunday exhibitions at a flea market on Long Point with a mostly Hispanic clientele. That was when things got weird.

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