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.

Although amateur wrestling has never caught on in Texas, at many high schools in the Midwest the exhausting shorts-and-helmets "twoaday" football practices of mid-August are just a training prelude to the late-fall moment when two young athletes stand in a circle painted on a foam mat unrolled on a gymnasium floor. The next six minutes -- less, if one contestant's strength, agility and speed maneuver his opponent into a quick pinning of both shoulders against the mat -- are a continuation of the ancient tradition of an individual defense of a collective honor. Win, on points or by pinning, and your personal victory is a win for your school. Lose, and even if your team wins the match overall, you're still a loser.

In the parts of America where amateur wrestling is a major sport, there's one phrase that for decades has been guaranteed to produce a hopeless, sinking feeling in an opponent. That phrase is "he learned to wrestle in Iowa."

Tugboat Taylor learned to wrestle in Iowa.
He made it to the state high school championships twice, in fact. It's not even a matter of debate that just going to State in Iowa is the equivalent of winning the state championship anywhere else. Taylor went on to make the Marine Corps wrestling team, and was selected as an alternate for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. With those credentials, he was a college degree away from being a highly sought-after wrestling coach. Instead, Taylor decided to become a professional wrestler -- and a heel to boot.

"It's fun being a heel," he snarls at his students. "The baby faces get the girls, but heels have the most fun."

But before his students can develop a character, a role to portray in the morality play that is a professional wrestling match, Taylor insists that they learn the basics. At every training session, time is spent studying up on the sit-out, the arm-bar takedown, the double-leg, the cradle. Learning these maneuvers -- in workouts that leave longtime veterans of Gold's Gym gasping for breath and dripping with sweat -- is just part of the price of getting to learn the really fun stuff.

But is the fun stuff -- the face slammed into the turnbuckle, the Atomic Drop, the leap from (and even through) the ropes into a clothesline, the boot to the rib, the body-slam, the matches that go on for 15 or 30 minutes -- really wrestling?

Yes. It's professional wrestling. Amateur wrestling is a contest of athletic ability, a metaphor for solo combat, where one wins all or loses all -- all alone. Professional wrestling is a morality play -- albeit one that requires considerable athletic ability. It's a synthesis of competition and cooperation. It's a job.

You don't, in a professional match, wrestle against someone. You work with them. It's a concept that Taylor preaches continually as he teaches not just the maneuvers but the philosophy of professional wrestling.

It's a rather straightforward philosophy. Every match tells a different story, but they almost always follow the same plot. Bad guys -- the heels -- strut, flex, exude arrogance, are rude to the fans. Heels cheat. The dirty tricks they pull on the good guys -- the baby faces -- know no bounds. They pull hair, they choke, they kick the baby faces when they are down, they sucker punch from behind like the despicable scoundrels they are. Everybody wants to be a heel -- even though it means losing.

That is the moral, in a nutshell, of pro wrestling: there was a time when we at least pretended that was our national philosophy. Maybe that's why admitting to being a wrestling fan can make one the object of cynical, snobbish derision -- for who in this day and age can believe that morality is anything but a liability?

Wrestling fans -- and, more than they like to admit, wrestlers -- still believe. Of course, keeping the faith requires an occasional suspension of belief: there's an unspoken agreement between the fans and wrestlers that if the action in the ring looks believable, the fans will believe it is real. As he holds Fontaine against the ropes and demonstrates punching techniques, Tugboat Taylor outlines what can and can't be done without losing the fans.

"You can hit the guy you're working with in the forehead, like this" -- Pow! -- "or in the side of the neck" --Whap! -- "and make it look good without hurting him. But if you punch him in the nose, you have to make him bleed or the crowd is going to start hollering fake."

No one would holler louder than a diminutive, blond-haired child-care worker named Gayle Haynes, who makes the drive in from her home in Porter to hang out with her friends at the gym at least once a week. Longtime fans such as Haynes are as important as the athletes to the madcap carnival that is a wrestling match.

"The guys like to tease me about being born under the seats at a match," Haynes laughs. "Sometimes it seems like I was."

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