"Kick 'im in the nuts!"
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.
| Name: Humongous|
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."
When Bob Murphy first started wrestling about ten years ago, when he was still Mangler Murphy or Destroyer or a Butcher Brother, before he had his own business, he would go anywhere for a show.
"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.
Between TASW and his mail-order business selling wrestling merchandise and memorabilia, Murphy is the rare wrestler who doesn't need a "real" job. He also is unusual in that he's not concerned about making it to the big time. "I want to bring guys up from here and help them make it to the next level." He motions to the large baby-faced man leading the training session under way in the ring. "I'm pretty sure I've got one right here "
| Name: Hot Stuff|
A.K.A.: Shawn Hernandez
Gimmick: Athletic Ability
Day Job: HPD impound lot
Size: 290 pounds of muscle
Will he go big time? He's got what it takes
"Wrestling is definitely harder than football," Shawn Hernandez says with a straight face. "That's why it's more gratifying to me."
Hernandez is qualified to address the issue, having played defensive lineman for Texas A&I and the Canadian and Arena football leagues. "Every time you're in the ring, whether you like the other guy or not, you're trusting him with your health. If he don't like you, bad things could happen. You could be paralyzed. When I was wrestling in Japan last April, a guy did a regular elbow drop off the top rope, but he did it wrong and hit the other guy's head. The guy died that night. He was 27 years old."
Hernandez started training for his first match in August 1996. Four years later he has come from being a masked, fake-dreadlocked whipping boy, wrestling at fairgrounds and high schools in front of 75 people, to the TASW heavyweight champ and fan favorite.
"There's no greater feeling than to have 300, 500 people, they're paying ten bucks to see you," he says. "Paying money just to watch what you do. They're bringing their family, buying pictures, buying videos of us, kids saying, 'When I grow up, I wanna be just like him.' "
Hernandez is about the only guy in TASW who looks like he should be on TV. Unlike most local heavyweights, his chest protrudes farther than his gut. His muscles are defined (he says he has benched 540 pounds). He's got a pretty face, shaved clean from dome to chin, and just enough Puerto Rican in him to provide a permanent tan. He looks far younger than his 30 years.
"It's a lot easier when you have decent physique," he says. "The fans are more forgiving. The bigger and better your physique, the less talent you have to have. The worse your gimmick and your character is, you'd better be that much better a wrestler."
The Hot Stuff gimmick is pretty thin -- "90 percent me, 10 percent character," he says -- but Hernandez is a damn good wrestler. Good enough that, a year or so after joining TASW, he clashed with the older, flabbier veterans over various issues. They ended up leaving, which put Hernandez in charge of training Murphy's recruits. So every Tuesday and Thursday after work he can be found demonstrating the finer nuances of the power bomb or the pile driver, how to bounce off the ropes without flying out of the ring, how to land flat on your back after a somersault without breaking your neck, and other methods of mayhem and self-preservation.
Hernandez is king between these ropes, but on the outside, he's just a big guy behind the window at the car impound lot. He usually doesn't volunteer that he's a wrestler.
"A lot of times that's the last thing I say I am. Even though it's very popular today, there's still a lot of negative comments. We're sports entertainers. We're trying to entertain people. If you don't like it, you don't have to come to the show."
| Name: Mini Stuff|
A.K.A.: "Turner. Just Turner."
Gimmick: Mini version of Hot Stuff
Day Job: Vitamin store
Size: Five feet eight, 170 pounds
Big time? Naaah
At this level of wrestling, you have to make do with what you've got. Turner is the next best thing to a midget.
"You know that guy Mini-Me from Austin Powers?" Turner asks after practice one day at the bingo hall. "That's all I do. I kinda look like Hot Stuff. That's all there is to it."
Turner ran away from his mother and abusive stepfather 12 years ago. His real father, a third-degree black belt in karate, taught him how to fight, but then kicked him out of the house when he gave up college to wrestle. Now, though, his folks support what he's doing, "because they know this is what I love."
"When you're in the ring, you can be someone completely different," says Turner, 21. "A lot of wrestlers never got to be the popular kid when they were younger, so some guys chase attention from that. For others, it's a childhood dream."
Turner's dream is to make it big. "Being on TV every week, having little groupies, that seems pretty cool to me," he says. "If I can go all the way with it, I sure will."
| Name: Skyler|
A.K.A.: Angela Alexa
Day Job: Veterinary technician
Size: Small and shapely
Big time? "I would take a chance. Who wouldn't?"
Coming out of Deer Park High School, Angela Alexa had a nice job lined up at the Underwood Animal Clinic. She thought she wanted to build a career working with animals.
There were animals in her future, all right.
"I never played sports. This is the first thing I ever tried," says Angela, 20, wide green eyes peeking though a carefully made-up face. "Throwing people around is great. It's like a new power. People look at me and get an impression that I can't do anything. But I step in the ring and show them that I can."
The days of women tussling with each other in pits full of mud or Jell-O are over. Angela trains in the ring twice a week and takes her lumps along with the big boys. "People ask me if it's fake," she says during a break from practice. "I say no, it hurts. Getting thrown on the mat from somebody's shoulders, that doesn't feel nice. Every time I leave here I have a headache."
At the Saturday-night show, Skyler and Humongous are in a tag-team title match against Big Daddy and Spanish Fly. Skyler is definitely a crowd favorite. When she hugs one little girl on her way into the ring, the child is so awed she covers her face, utterly thrilled. Once inside the ring, Skyler turns fierce, belting Big Daddy in the stomach with two hands clasped into a fist and leveling Spanish Fly with a mean clothesline. She gives a little hop just before putting her whole body into her swings, like Sammy Sosa in reverse. She also gets her long hair yanked what seems like a dozen times, which pleases a few patrons. "Get her, Big Daddy!" screams the godmother. "Slap her head off!"
At the culmination of the match, Skyler climbs to the top rope. Humongous hoists her aloft by the chest and crotch and tosses her onto a prone Spanish Fly for the victory. At that moment, more than a few men in the crowd want to be Spanish Fly. More than a few girls want to be Skyler.
It's her third match. She's been training for a year and a half. She earns $50.
"She has no idea how much money she could make," Hot Stuff Hernandez says later. "She looks just as good as any woman in pro wrestling. She's young. The first thing the WWF would do is what they do with all women: hand them $5,000 and send them straight to the plastic surgeon for new boobs."
Skyler's not pressed, for surgery or stardom. "I'll just take it as it comes," she says. "If one of the scouts spot me, okay. But it isn't a big goal of mine." She's smart, had a high B average in high school. She'd rather be a cop or a private investigator, something she became interested in when nursing dogs and cats got boring.
| Name: Necro Butcher|
A.K.A.: Dylan Summers
Gimmick: Insane violence
Day Job: Ex-welder
Size: A burly 280 pounds
Big time? "If it's all over tomorrow, so be it. I've had fun."
Becoming the Necro Butcher was a liberating experience for Dylan Summers.
Fresh out of a four-year stint in the army, Summers was eager to begin pursuing his "life's ambition" of being a wrestler. Trouble was, his promoter in Fort Worth saddled him with a law-abiding G.I. Joe-type character. "My first four months I was all clean-cut, never broke the rules, went out there with an American flag a couple of times, wore the army clothes -- and [the crowd] hated me," he says. "I don't mean the good hate, where they wanted me to get my ass kicked, but hated me like they didn't even want me in the damn ring, get this guy outta here, he sucks."
One night Summers was wrestling for free, in a smaller show, the kind where a half-dozen people might watch him thrash around in a country-western bar. Summers decided to paint his face, act crazy, do more bashing and less rassling. For the first time, the audience cheered him. The Necro Butcher was born out of the crowd's love.
The bad thing about being Necro is living up to the name. Like the night in Huntsville when the promoter filled up Summers's head with talk about a guy from Sam Houston State University paying big money to put together a show. "They were talking thousands of dollars, as opposed to the tens of dollars that I was getting," Summers says. "Turns out the dude from the college wasn't even there, and later it turns out he wasn't even from the college. He was just some guy."
In what he calls a "very common case of bad judgment," Summers poured lighter fluid on a pile of debris in the middle of the ring and instructed his opponent to power-bomb him into the flaming campfire. The lighter fluid, not having been briefed beforehand, proceeded to soak into Summers's long hair. "Stop, drop and roll doesn't work very well on concrete," he notes. "It took about 30 seconds before someone doused me with a bottle of water. It ended up like a bad case of sunburn."
This story is the backbone of Necro's legend -- in Texas, at least -- for being a complete psycho. If you believe the stories, he has dived into piles of fluorescent light bulbs, tossed himself at cacti, put watermelons on people's stomachs and then smashed the fruit with baseball bats. "Before our match, he told me to slap him in the face absolutely as hard as I could," says a wrestler called Cindy, real name Brandy Inman, about her first match against Necro. "He said if I didn't slap him as hard as I could, he would slap the mess out of me."
Summers doesn't need to go pyro during the Saturday-night show in Humble; the crowd already loves Necro to death. He enters the ring to the death-metal scrape of "War Is Coming" by Six Feet Under, wearing shiny, pentagram-embroidered boots. In one hand Necro holds aloft a dirty-white stuffed rabbit entwined in barbed wire, a gift from a fan. The other hand brandishes a dented stop sign, a gift from another wrestler.
The stop sign is in for a workout. Necro's opponent is Mr. Fu Ku, a masked, muscle-free flopper who, according to the announcer, hails from "Beijing, China." After the obligatory chops and tosses, Necro heaves Fu Ku from the ring, delivers several crunching blows to Fu Ku's back with the obligatory folding chair, tosses him back through the ropes and clangs the stop sign off Fu Ku's head. Loudly. You wonder if Fu Ku has some sort of helmet under his mask. Then Fu Ku turns the tables on Necro, chokes him into submission with a kind of bamboo swizzle stick, picks up the stop sign and bashes Necro once, twice, three times in the forehead. You realize that neither man is wearing a helmet. You wonder if a helmet would have anything to protect.
Necro regroups and emerges victorious, but not unscathed. While he is signing autographs during the ensuing intermission and posing for a picture with two grade-schoolers and his barbed rabbit, Summers's forehead is bruised a bright crimson. Young boys scamper nearby, swinging chairs at each other's heads.
"This is gonna sound screwed up, but I'll probably die in the ring," says Summers, 26, a few days later. "I'll be a 50-year-old man jumping off the top rope, I'll have a heart attack, and that'll be it. I don't see myself quitting. I'm not gonna get a real job. I might get one to pay the bills. If I were to get a really severe injury, like a back injury, I see myself doing a behind-the-scenes role. Helping out in the back. I'll never leave wrestling."
| Name: Mr. Fu Ku|
A.K.A.: "You won't know that."
Gimmick: Martial artist
Day Job: "Something with computers."
Size: Smaller than he wishes
Big time? "I know what I want and how to get it. I'm taking it. It's there."
Even for a wrestler, Mr. Fu Ku has a black belt in hyperbole.
This should be apparent given his astounding display of floppery against the Necro Butcher, which culminated in Fu Ku passing out and being dragged, face down, from the center of the ring. But you're momentarily thrown off by Fu Ku's air of vulnerability as he dodges all questions related to his real identity.
"You're lucky you caught me without my mask on. Only four people know who I am. Some of my own family doesn't know," he says during a break from a training session in back of the bingo hall. "You should see how people look at me at stoplights when I'm driving to the show in my mask."
While Fu Ku looks skinny in the ring, in person he's a bit more substantial. Just a bit, though. "I weigh 210. A year ago I weighed 165," he says, which is only slightly less hard to believe than his Web site, www.fukuforever.com. The site claims that he's 220 pounds and includes a digitally stretched picture of a shirtless Fu Ku that looks like the fat mirror at the fun house. Fu Ku is definitely not from China -- his chest is much too hairy. Maybe Chechnya.
How does one gain an alleged 45 pounds in one year and have nary a bulge to show for it? "Lifting weights and eating six meals a day." What kind of meals? "First I eat 1.5 pounds of meat. Wait 15 minutes, eat a pound of vegetables." How tall are you? "Six-five." But you're shorter than Necro Butcher, who's six-three. "I'm six-five," Fu Ku repeats.
"I've had 12 concussions," Fu Ku says when asked about the abuse he took in his last match. "My head was ringing for two days afterward. I was walking around the house like, 'Where's everybody at?' " He also has a long scar on his forearm that conceals "a six-inch plate and six screws," the result of a leg drop when his arm was caught on the ropes. "I finished the match, won, and wrestled again that same night," he says. "Afterward I turned my hand over, but the hand didn't turn with the arm."
It must be frustrating for Fu Ku to take these kinds of beatings, what with him being proficient in "kuk sool won, tae kwon do, jujitsu and some more that you'd have trouble spelling." Later, however, you're told that Fu Ku, all of 18 years old, was giving you "work," wrestling slang for fake, as opposed to a "shoot" interview, which means real.
But Fu Ku seems to be working himself most of all, because he utterly, positively, completely believes he will make it to the big leagues.
"My chances are real good," he says, brown eyes boring into yours. "Sacrifice brings great rewards. It'll work out. Five years from now you'll look on TV and say, 'I interviewed him.' "
| Name: Big Daddy from Cincinnati|
A.K.A.: Josh Reynolds
Gimmick: Still working on it
Day Job: HPD impound lot
Size: 265 pounds of arms, chest and belly
Big time? "You have to be in the right place at the right time. The more places you're in, the more chances you have."
The hardest thing about wrestling for Josh Reynolds is keeping a straight face.
"It's very hard not to laugh. Very, very hard not to laugh," he says. "When I'm wrestling with [Hot Stuff], I try not to look at him. One time I was near the crowd, and a lady in the audience kicked me in the shoulder. She looked around first, then kicked me. Stuff like that makes you laugh."
Reynolds started training eight months ago when Hot Stuff Hernandez, his co-worker down at the impound yard, convinced him to give it a try. He's still figuring out what it takes to create a strong character. Since he's a bad guy, not laughing would be a good start, unless it's of the evil chuckle variety.
Before his match against Humongous and Skyler, he entered to the theme from Jaws, grabbed the microphone and delivered a speech that included phrases like "this little pisshole called Humble" and "get permission from your mama to get your nuts out her purse." It did manage to elicit a few cries of "Go back to Cincinnati, motherfucker" from the crowd.
He used to have a great gimmick, but it got axed because of its adult content. "In some places, I'm still Big Dick Daddy from Cincinnati," says Reynolds, 25. "A lot of people liked it," says Murphy, the promoter, "but a couple of parents complained to the owner of the building. We had to tone it down a little bit."
| Name: Nadia Payne|
A.K.A.: Michelle Eaton
Gimmick: Dungeon mistress
Day Job: Nude dancer
Big time? "I want to go as far as I can. I'm not sure where that is."
Michelle Eaton has yet to wrestle for an audience. Right now she's training out back of the bingo hall and paying her dues as a valet. That means on match days she escorts Hot Stuff into the ring and parades around in a tight skirt, which is not a stretch from her real job at Fantasy North, a BYOB all-nude cabaret where she was recruited by some, uh, talent scouts from TASW.
"There are a lot of similarities between dancing and wrestling -- choreographing, agility," says the 24-year-old redhead from Baytown. With wrestling, "I like the challenge, a female up against a male. Or even a female with the same qualifications, going up against her. It's a challenge."
Eaton hasn't gotten paid yet, but "I'm not into it for the money," she says after her workout, encased in the leather interior of her shiny black convertible Mustang. "I enjoy getting in there, sweating, learning new moves. It actually opens eyes on my self-protection; if someone comes up and attacks me at work, it's nice to know I can defend myself now."
Her advice for aspiring lady wrestlers: "This is a man's sport, and a woman has to work ten times harder than a man to prove herself, that she can do what these big 350-pound men can do. If you can't handle guys laughing at you because you cried and fell on your butt a few times, you don't need to get in there."
| Name: Spanish Fly|
A.K.A.: First name Louis, last name Withheld
Gimmick: In progress
Day Job: Nursing student
Size: Small but muscular
Big time? "I dunno. Being bilingual helps."
Louis had his first match in March, after more than a year of training, and currently does double duty at TASW and the LWF, a Mexican outfit in Houston. As a rookie, he makes $50 to $75 per night at TASW, $30 to $50 for the Spanish-language shows.
"It's hard to develop a character," says Louis, who is Mexican-American. "Here I've always been a villain. I've been a good guy in the Mexican federation. I'm trying to change my role into a villain over there, being a smart-ass with the ref, hitting him, going behind the concession stand and getting salsa to throw in a guy's face. Just trying to develop an attitude."
In the ring, Louis wears a bright red mask and matching skintight suit that actually flatters his five-foot-six, 170-pound physique. "In Mexico they honor the mask. To be a masked wrestler is a sign that you're a good wrestler because you haven't lost [the mask] yet. A lot of time if you lose, they pull up the mask. Whoever the promoter thinks is the better wrestler keeps the mask."
Maskless and sweaty after a workout at the bingo hall, Louis seems a bit reticent. He doesn't want his last name used. He doesn't usually tell people he meets that he spends Saturday nights running around in a mask and bodysuit.
"I'm just doing it because I like it. This is something like a hobby of mine. If I start doing it as a full-time job, making money, sure I'll tell them I'm a wrestler, because it'll be my job. I'm not really embarrassed. Pretty much all my friends know; I invite them to the matches. But I don't go around telling people."
Louis, who holds a green belt in tae kwon do, got into wrestling for the opportunity to travel, make a little money, develop an alternative to school. He has been invited to Atlanta and Mexico by the LWF and hopes to take advantage of the offers once he graduates from San Jacinto Junior College in December with his nursing degree.
"Wrestling is a lot harder to pick up than tae kwon do," he says. "Wrestling is a trade. Tae kwon do you learn for self-defense. In wrestling, you develop a toughness where you can give hits and take hits. This is more of a trade, a way to make a living."
Do you really expect to make it big? "It would be nice. It beats working."
| Name: Playboy Joey Corman|
A.K.A.: Joey Corman
Gimmick: "It's just me."
Day Job: Wrestling is his life
Size: Eating his way up the scale
Big time? A long shot
Joey Corman is asleep when you call his house in Tyler at two in the afternoon. It's part of his workout routine.
"I eat Burger King, peanut butter, bananas, anything with fatty content. I stuff it in, lay down and go to sleep. I'm pretty lazy and haven't been lifting, which is kind of a waste since I'm taking creatine. The WWF said they could use me for dark [untelevised] matches if I got up to 160 pounds and they like my work. I'm five-foot-six, so at 160 I'll look crazy big. I'm 150 pounds now. When I started I was 125."
Corman, 23, never wanted to be a normal person. He was always the kid in school busting jokes, tripping over nothing, making wise remarks. That's basically his persona in the ring. When he enters the ring at Humble, he's neither a villain nor a hero, just a little guy with a slightly deranged expression and a big mouth. He and his opponent, a leprechaun look-alike called Samir, bounce and flip all over the ring, improvising everything but the outcome. Corman prevails with a flip off the top rope.
Corman wrestles all over Texas, scraping up enough cash to pay his half of the bills in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend. "It's a love-hate relationship," he says, and he's not talking about his woman. "I love performing, going to different towns that haven't been exposed to live wrestling, and it'll be crazy and hype. Like someplace I went out toward Louisiana. The population is 500, and 900 people were at the match.
"But the travel gets to you, and there are some crappy rings. Crappy rings are scary, dude. You can't perform half your moves. You have to have a lot of trust in the ring. I trust Samir, and he trusts me. I know he won't let me die."
Corman is straight-up about his motives for risking his neck. "My goal is to make a lot of money. That may sound crappy, but that's it. I've bought every piece of wrestling merchandise ever. It's time for wrestling to give back to me."
Still, there's the feeling that even if the call never comes, Playboy Joey Corman will keep driving to Nowhere, Texas, for a hundred bucks or so, doing double flips off the top rope, running his mouth and just generally being Joey.
"You spend your whole life watching what goes on inside the ring," Corman says. "Once you get into the ring and look out at the world, it's completely different."
TASW can be reached at (281)548-5856, or visit www.taswwrestling.com. Other independent wrestling sites: www.whoowrestling.com, email@example.com, www.beyondfans.homestead.com and www.fukuforever.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.