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."

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.

"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.

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."

"I always try to sit close to the fourth or fifth row, work with whoever's in the ring to get the crowd worked up." Haynes explains, "I'll make faces at them, call them names, tell them they aren't tough, that they're gonna get whipped, that I'll come up there and whip them myself."

The thought of being folded up and mailed home by this slender, kindly woman no doubt terrifies the likes of Fontaine and the Top Cop. Making her mad just might cost someone a friend who, for all her ringside bloodthirstiness, is somehow just hopelessly, old-fashionably sweet.

"I was at a match a few months ago where the wrestlers got really mad at each other," she recounts disapprovingly. "All the way out to the fourth row you could actually hear them cussing each other. And there were children there."

The first thought that came to mind upon hearing Haynes' tale was, of course, "This is a woman who has never sat within earshot of the court at an NBA game." And the second was that maybe this was a better world back when professional athletes watched their mouths with children present, and we all knew the bad guys were eventually going to lose.

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