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.

"I was wrestling Chaz, Tug's son, who was wrestling as the Neon Ninja," Fontaine says. "Some kid in the audience yelled something, and I'm like, 'Shut up, punk, I'll have you for lunch.' I turn away and when I turn back around, the damn kid is in the ring and wants to fight me."

Fontaine's voice still registers shock as he recalls what went through his mind: " 'Oh, great, now I get to beat up a 15-year-old Mexican kid.' But the ref and a couple of wrestlers got him out of there while somebody acted like they were holding me back."

That show-must-go-on attitude surely won an approving nod from the spirit of legendary wrestling promoter Boesch, who for decades was the godfather of professional wrestling in Houston. It was difficult to come of age in Houston during the '50s, '60s and '70s without at least one Friday night pilgrimage to the Sam Houston Coliseum for Boesch's Houston Wrestling extravaganzas; even those who profess to disdain pro wrestling still somehow remember that Boesch's events ran on Channel 39.

There's no such disdain among the apprentice wrestlers at Taylor's gym. They watched the programs, they went to the shows, they cheered for Gino Hernandez.

Indeed, Fontaine counts that larger-than- life bad guy as a major influence.
"Hernandez was just so far ahead of his time, with the limousine, dating Farah Fawcett, he was the reason I decided that some day I'd be a wrestler."

Like most wrestlers and longtime fans, Fontaine is unapologetically nostalgic for the pre-WWF days of local wrestling. "The WWF is so predictable, cartoonish, it's almost a carnival sideshow compared to what Paul Boesch did," Fontaine remembers fondly. "He had good stories -- two guys would keep a story line going for weeks, and you'd be afraid to miss the show because there might be a twist."

"The way it used to be" is a constant refrain among Taylor's wrestlers, most of whom possess the sort of detailed memories common to devotees of outside-the-mainstream enthusiasms. Anyone who can enjoy eavesdropping on an impassioned discussion between two norteno fans on the merits of various accordion players will find a similar obsessive, inclusive knowledge of wrestling reflected in the conversation around Taylor's ring.

While their worlds did not exactly fall apart when Boesch retired in 1988 and local leagues nationwide were driven to extinction by the relentless publicity onslaught of the cable-televised WWF and World Championship Wrestling organizations, Taylor's students agree that it was much more fun to root for a local hero -- or, in Hernandez's case, a local villain.

Something endearing and essential was lost when wrestling fans nationwide became just another mass market and the lucrative onslaught of infomercials drove the price of local airtime beyond what a one-town promoter could afford. "One of the big problems with bringing back local wrestling," Taylor fumes, "is that local TV has just gotten ridiculous with what they charge per hour." And if staring at a half-hour advertisement when we could be watching wrestling instead isn't a damning indictment of a bankrupt culture, then what is?

It's enough to turn a Boomer into a curmudgeon, trying to explain to a member of the Lollapalooza Generation what it was like to trudge three miles barefoot through the snow to the nearest television to watch wrestling the way God intended for it to be watched -- in black and white, broadcast from an auditorium small enough for even the cheap seats to be good ones. Wrestling at The Summit? Give me a break. With that much space, no one can hear you scream.

Across America -- especially in the South -- the true believers still gather and keep the faith. Veterans of long-gone wrestling federations teach the subtle and the outrageous to hopeful young athletes until they judge their proteges ready to face the public, and one another. Phone calls go out through a loose-knit underground of trainers and managers when a wrestler is ready to "go pro." Granted, it might be a gig in a school gymnasium outside of Dallas or at a flea market in Spring, but, as any professional entertainer will tell you, a gig's a gig when you're getting started.

Despite the humble surroundings of Taylor's sheet-metal gym, the dedication and impressive resume of the massive, muscular tutor provides a rare opportunity for the students to realize something that is, for most of them, a lifelong dream. For at least two of them, it's led to a lucrative career. The WWF tag-team duo Harlem Heat are graduates of Taylor's school (it's both out of friendship with the Heat and hopes of emulating their success that most of Taylor's students ask that any derogatory remarks they make about the WWF remain off-the-record).

But Lieutenant Pyle, the Karate Kid, the Cyclops, Big D, Tommy Fontaine, Danny Law the Top Cop and Ty the Cowboy accept that stardom is a possibility, not an eventuality, and the chances of riches and fame are slight. This is, they explain as though it were obvious, something they have to do.

Amateur and professional are, of course, the two separate and distinct (yet intertwined) types of wrestling. Professional wrestling's emphasis on entertainment and theatrics has lead to decades of accusations that the sport is somehow "fake." Amateur wrestling -- high school, collegiate, Olympic -- is a grueling, demanding contests of skill and strength.

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