By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
A Saturday night in Humble. An 11-year-old girl screams from her seat inside a dusty bingo hall, watching a collection of dreamers act out the pain pageant that is Texas All-Star Wrestling.
"Kick 'im in the pay-nis!"
The girl's white-haired godmother hollers advice to the hero of the moment, Hot Stuff Hernandez, on how to counter the onslaught of the 500-pound-plus Rasta Savage. Gathered around the battered wrestling ring during the main event are the rest of TASW, wearing capes or tights or paint or masks, swarming all over each other, acting out your fantasies of violence and frustration and revenge.
By day these men and women might be selling you vitamins, handing over the keys to your car after you've been bailed out of jail, giving your dog a rabies shot, dancing for you butt-naked in a strip joint, sitting next to you in class. Tonight, though, they're demonstrating everything you've ever wanted to inflict upon your worst enemy. The audience, about 300 strong, sucks it up like the $2 beers and $1.50 pretzels at the concession stand.
The corpulent Rasta Savage lies in the middle of the ring. Hot Stuff clambers to the top rope, pauses, leaps. His back seems to scrape the sprinkler valves attached to the yellowed false ceiling. Splash! He lands atop the mound of flesh. The girl and the godmother scream. Victorious, Hot Stuff struts off through a plywood facade painted to look like cinder blocks, then emerges a few minutes later to sign autographs at a folding table. The godmother elbows her way to the front of the line to get her picture -- not the girl's -- snapped with the sweaty wrestler.
This is what lies beneath the pay-per-view and pumped-up muscles of big-time outfits like the World Wrestling Federation. This is where the next Rock or Chyna or Stone Cold Steve Austin will be born. As American pop culture descends into a swamp of sex and violence, this is ground zero.
This is Texas All-Star Wrestling.
A.K.A.: Bob Murphy
Gimmick: He's humongous
Day Job: Runs Texas All-Star Wrestling
Size: 450 pounds. At least.
Will he go big time? "I'd like to make it big right here in Houston."
"Me and my brother were trying to work everywhere, just get our names out, we didn't care where. All the way down to Laredo, down to the border in Harlingen, and we'd barely make $50. Travel six hours down there, wrestle, then drive six hours back the same night," Murphy remembers, sunk into a huge couch in a back room of the Humble bingo hall, where the ring is set up for his wrestlers to practice their craft. There is nary a weight set or a treadmill in sight, only wrestling accessories such as barbed wire and nails. Flies buzz about empty cans of Miller Lite. The walls are plastered with signs like the one that reads, "SCAR WARS '99 Get Your Tickets Now at Mr. Gatti's Pizza."
"I loved it. You got to," Murphy says of his time in the trenches. "The crowd, the fans coming up to you and want your autograph, it makes you feel like a million bucks. The competition, seeing what you're made of, what the other guy can put on you."
There are hundreds of small-time wrestling operations across the country, including at least a dozen in Texas. During his travels, Murphy encountered more than a few shady promoters. Guys who would only muster a crowd of a few dozen people, then short Murphy on the pay or not pay him at all. Guys who would issue empty promises of talent scouts in the crowd to get wrestlers to risk their necks with crazy stunts. It didn't take long for Murphy to conclude that he could do better on his own.
In January 1994 Murphy and his then-tag-team partner rented out a bingo hall hard by U.S. 59, giving the owner $500 plus the take from the concession stand. They rechristened it the Humble Bingo Arena and drew 450 people at $5 to $10 a pop their first show.
The promoter is the puppeteer pulling all the strings, and Murphy knew what the crowd wanted -- good story lines, big men and the hero coming back from a serious whipping to win -- so his shows were popular. Plenty of those who came wanted to jump in the ring themselves, so in 1998 Murphy opened a back room of the bingo hall as a wrestling school. Would-be superstars have to pay their dues by refereeing, escorting wrestlers to the ring as a "valet" or acting as security -- all this for free, in order to get a feel for the ring during the months of training leading up to the first match.
These days, Texas All-Star Wrestling draws anywhere from 300 to 800 people to Humble every month, and puts on shows in other towns such as Texas City, Baytown, Port Lavaca, Brenham and El Campo. After each match, Murphy sits behind his big black briefcase and pays his wrestlers anywhere from $50 for a rookie to $150 for someone in the main event. Imported talent, like Rasta Savage, might cost a bit more. This is compared to the $250 or $300 per match that the WWF or WCW pays no-names to take a beating from the superstars, who are signed to yearly contracts.