Booker T's Reality of Wrestling Gets a Second Chance, Just as He Did
In a spacious area in the back of a strip mall gym in southeast Houston, in one of two professional wrestling style rings, Kevin Burnhardt executes a hip toss on Natasha Tassinari.
If you're a wrestling fan, you know a hip toss is a basic transitional wrestling move, an afterthought, the equivalent of a simple pick at the top of the key in a basketball game.
"STOP!" a deep, gravely voice barks out.
"Natasha, you got to get more elevation on that hip toss. Let's do it again!"
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The person shouting those instructions, striving for perfection, is Booker Huffman, a Houston native and WWE Hall of Fame wrestler, better known to most fans as Booker T. Burnhardt is Booker T's right hand man, his lieutenant in his local wrestling endeavors, and Tassinari is one of Booker's students at his wrestling school.
It's in this small gym that the seeds of the next chapter in Booker T's legacy are planted. This is where he teaches aspiring professional wrestlers the craft that has made him a worldwide celebrity and a wrestling icon, and it's from the talent pool generated in this gym that Booker T constructs the roster for the local Reality Of Wrestling promotion, which is run by Booker and his wife, Sharmell.
Anyone who follows wrestling knows that in this day and age, the local independent promotion is as risky a proposition as there is. Part dinosaur, part minnow, "indies," as they're called by insiders, already had a microscopic survival rate even before Vince McMahon and WWE swallowed the business whole over the last decade or so.
Booker T is one of the most decorated wrestlers in the history of the business, a father of 3-year-old twins who still spends several days a month on the road as an announcer for WWE television programming.
So why is someone who has made enough money to kick back and retire grinding it out in a sweaty gym after ten o'clock on a Wednesday night?
"It goes back to Paul Boesch," Booker said, citing the late patriarch of Mid-South Wrestling and a staple of the Houston business community a couple decades ago. "I do this as a tribute to him, and to try and pass the business down to the next generation of wrestlers the right way."
Reality Of Wrestling, or "the ROW," as Booker calls it, runs shows on a monthly basis out of the recreation center in Clear Lake, and has for nearly a decade, first under the Professional Wrestling Alliance (PWA) name, and after an epiphany a few years ago where Booker spontaneously felt it was necessary to change the name, now under the ROW banner.
Asked to describe ROW, Booker says "It's WWE, but it's not WWE."
And as open ended as that description sounds, if you've been to an ROW show, you know exactly what Booker T means.
For an indie show in a recreation center, the production values are top notch. Wrestlers stroll out from behind the curtain down an extravagant ramp with massive television monitors running video and blaring ring entrance music, a miniature version of the superstructure you'd see on WWE's flagship show Monday Night RAW.
Still, while the production strives to emulate WWE, the venue lends itself to a coziness and a level of direct fan interaction that is impossible to replicate in one of WWE's 15,000-seat venues.
"We are entertainment," Booker proudly proclaims.
However, Booker T didn't get rich by giving money away. Like any business, you need money to survive. In wrestling, money only comes through exposure, and exposure really only comes through television.
Without television, any wrestling organization with the goals that Booker T has for ROW is living on borrowed time. In fact, as recently as December, ROW was on borrowed time. Booker's wrestlers and staff didn't know it then, but ROW's Christmas Chaos show in December was slated to be the promotion's farewell, with the doors closing afterward forever.
But just as the wrestling gods were about to put the sleeper hold on ROW, in stepped Hilton Koch.
Koch, the owner of Hilton Furniture, was at the December show as a guest of Booker, and was so impressed, he wanted in as a partner in ROW.
Koch's involvement, along with support from sponsors such as Lewis Diamonds and Walker Texas Lawyer, allowed Booker T to secure the company's lifeline, a weekly television deal with the KUBE, Channel 57.
ROW was saved. In wrestling parlance, the promotion "kicked out at two and a half." They survived.
Since then, everything's been coming up gold. Television in wrestling not only means exposure, it also means credibility, and the weekly program on the KUBE begat a game- changing deal with the Soul of the South network, a regional African-American-focused network, in February. ROW went from a promotion on life support to a promotion that will now run in more than 20 cities around the country.
The holy grail of visual programming in the wrestling business is pay-per-view. ROW will run its first Internet pay-per-view in July. Booker expects them to make money for the first time ever in the near future.
Make no mistake, stories like ROW are rare in independent professional wrestling. For Booker and his crew, it's been an improbable ride.
But Booker T has made a career out of doing the improbable. Growing up in the South Park area of Houston, he lost both of his parents when he was 14. As a young man, he went to jail for 19 months for robbing several Wendy's restaurants. Sitting in a jail cell as a convicted felon is about as far away from being a wealthy Hall of Fame wrestler and respected family man as one can get.
But Booker T made it, and the adversity in an odd way equipped him to lead ROW through the turbulence.
The workout at the gym last Wednesday night is finally over, and Booker T is holding court, sitting around telling stories to the half dozen or so people still there. If there were a Hall of Fame for storytelling, Booker would be in that one, too. People are hanging on his every word.
He talks about the first world title he won in WCW, his move over to WWE, and how much fun it is to "be Booker T" on television.
Booker talks about his trip to Australia a couple weeks ago to promote Wrestlemania 30, which is coming up on April 6. As part of any trip like that one, Booker visits with sick children in hospitals, and he recounts meeting a cancer stricken 12-year-old girl, a fan of Booker's.
"She asked me, 'How do you go from day to day?'" recalled Booker, a seemingly simple question that's harder to answer than it seems, especially when a sick child is asking.
Booker thought about it, and told her, "Hey, life is the hardest thing, but don't quit. I was a quitter at one time, when I was a kid, and I think about that every time I look in the mirror.
"Now, I just can't quit."
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