Manglers

Fake? Sure. But the blood is real, the headaches are vicious, and that VCR somebody just bashed you with is made out of steel.

Criado rolls painstakingly out of the ring a minute later. Asked how it felt to be Blevins' landing field, he says, "Didn't feel that good. Well, it's not like sleeping, I mean." But did it hurt? "It's all relative," he shrugs. "Know what I mean?"

Dr. Death later moves to the fine art of throwing convincing punches to the head and chest. For instance, he offers, you might try at home gluing thumbtacks to the wall with the pointy end out. Then start jabbing at them. That way you'll learn to pull punches, 'cause you'll be mightily inclined to do so. Everyone nods, as though they'll all be stopping by the five-and-dime on the way home to pick up a few dozen.

He demonstrates head punches. He stomps on the mat with each strike so the blows seem to rattle a volunteer's head like a snare drum. Dr. Death invites him to strike back. He does, several times, until Dr. Death turns away curtly after taking an errant blow. His hand over his left eye, he's in obvious pain and reaches out semi-blindly to find a rope to lean on. The gym goes silent but for a decrepit and ineffectual floor fan. Nobody knows quite what to do, as embarrassment and confusion hang in the humid air. It seems like agonizing minutes pass. What's the proper etiquette? Console him? Hit him while he's down?

Ryan O'Riley takes one in the sweet spot.
Colby Katz
Ryan O'Riley takes one in the sweet spot.
Mat dreams: Scott Papper and Laura Brown aspire to the big time.
Colby Katz
Mat dreams: Scott Papper and Laura Brown aspire to the big time.

Dr. Death springs upright and grins. "See? I had you all believing he thumbed me, like I was really hurt," he yells as best he can. "And you all should know better! If you can fool [the audience] like I fooled you with a punch... There's an art here! We have to bring it back. That's my job. My job is to bring back the old style. I'm not here to make fools of you. I'm here to make you pro wrestlers.

"So how can I make this business better? I'm the legend. I'm the old-timer. I'm trying to give you my art so you can bring it up like it used to be. I want to teach you my art, because this is an art."


During a rainy Monday night in September, the Four Star Wrestling Academy appears even less charming than usual. The steady drizzle has everyone crowding inside, and some look a bit wilted. The ring occupies most of the light-industrial warehouse bay, leaving only a narrow walkway around it. A tiny TV and video player for reviewing matches jam a cubbyhole at the far end. A carrot-colored sofa hunkers near the sliding garage door. The cinderblock walls are painted white to a point; then, as if the painter realized that mascara won't turn a hag into a beauty, the coat ends. The high ceiling is bare concrete beams.

The school is open weekday nights, and any or all of its three owners -- Flex Magnum, J.J. Kodiak, and Big Daddy Gonzo -- might be in attendance. For the neophytes, they crawl into the ring and work hands-on, starting with the simplest skills of falling into the ropes and taking a bump. But they get plenty of help from other veteran pro wrestlers who show up more often than not. Rusty Brooks, founder of the former incarnation of the school, which he ran in his backyard, is a fixture here, a sort of godfather of this Field of Gettin' Creamed.

Tonight, Brooks watches from outside the ring as four of the advanced students race through a tag-team match. Each pair performs numerous "spots" -- choreographed moves that may include holds, tackles, body slams, flips, punches, kicks, tosses, escapes, and reversals. Brooks, a rotund balding man with a goateed face best described as jolly, sits beside Norman Smiley, a veteran who had his time in the sun with the World Wrestling Federation, which is the major leagues in this business.

After a particularly energetic engagement among the wrestlers, Brooks has finally seen enough and rises up on legs the size of telephone poles. "Problem is, when you go balls to the walls in the beginning, you can't slow down in the middle," he declares. "The end was a total clusterfuck. When you try to put 75 spots into a match, it's gonna fuck up. Be a lot simpler and more crisp and more fuckin' solid with this shit instead of trying to do 45 fuckin' explosive moves. When you start missing them, it becomes like a cycle. OK? OK?"

The students are jolted out of their self-satisfaction, and Brooks is on a roll. "Spice it up a little bit after you hit a big boom!" he rants. "Work the crowd a little! Invite them into what you're doing. Because you're so intent on doing your spots, you're forgetting that."

Brooks has worked hundreds of crowds during his career, which began before the WWF consolidated many of the smaller operations. The job always involved unexpected travel. At first, he tried to keep his job working for Broward County driving trucks. "Every relative I had had died three times, just so I could get off to go to these shows," he says. He's wrestled in all the leagues, from big to small. He's been in the ring with Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. Sometimes he'd wrestle under his own name; other times, he used a gimmick. One promoter in the 1980s noticed the popularity of the Nintendo computer game that featured the hammer-happy Mario. He convinced Brooks to paint on a mustache, dye his hair jet black, and don painter's overalls. "I thought it was going to be the biggest bomb there ever was," Brooks says. But the kids loved the character.

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