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

"I didn't really do any sports in high school, but I wrestled with my buddies," he says of his boyhood in Boca Raton. "We'd just go for the pain in the front or backyard. We didn't go for performance. I never got into backyarding, though. We never did that shit where we put each other through tables and stuff."

Papper has watched wrestling on TV since he was in preschool, and when he graduated from high school in 2002, he considered the advice he'd always heard to "do what you love" for a living. "I was thinking: Do I really like working at a takeout barbecue restaurant? Do I love that? C'mon. I love wrestling."

His mother supports his career ambitions, his father is just coming around, and his friends, well... "My buddies tease me because it's such a weird career," he says. "They'll probably go into business majors or whatever crap they want to do, but I'm going through with what I want to do."

Colby Katz
Wrestling school owner and trainer Flex Magnum (above left) teaches the mighty to fall with panache. Veteran wrestler Rusty Brooks growls at wrestling students but coos to his dog Sadie. The nasty moves of a tag-team match.
Colby Katz
Wrestling school owner and trainer Flex Magnum (above left) teaches the mighty to fall with panache. Veteran wrestler Rusty Brooks growls at wrestling students but coos to his dog Sadie. The nasty moves of a tag-team match.

Brooks says Papper is "working his ass off" every night of the week. But he's at the most difficult stage now: learning psychology.

"Psychology is a whole 'nother world," Brooks says. "Doing the right moves at the right time. Knowing when to play to the crowd. When to move fast or slow. How to sell the moves. It's the combination of a hundred different things. It's tough to get it all right."

Papper recently weathered his first real match during a battle royal at Potter Park Gym in Davie. Eight contestants wrestled at one time and were disqualified when pinned or thrown out of the ring. He was nervous about how the crowd would receive him but was pleased with the response. "I went out there, and they hated me," he chortles. "They were cursing me. Some guys tried to shake my hand, and I pulled it away at the last second. At that point, they still weren't booing me as much as I wanted. So right before I got in the ring, I yelled, 'F- you,' and all this kind of stuff, the basic stuff. During the match, I'd kick a good guy in the face, then dedicate that move to the audience. Oh man, they got so insane." Papper knocked an opponent out of the ring, then started running his mouth, bragging to the crowd. That's when he got drop-kicked in the back of the head and went over the top rope.

Papper's "report card" from the event, which is posted at the school, notes the difficulty in judging psychology during a free-for-all battle royal but describes his work as a "surprising performance."

"I see a lot of these guys, they're good, but a lot of them don't want to learn," he says. "They do their thing, and then they leave. I'm trying to be a sponge and listen to what everybody has to say. I always want to be learning. There's gotta be something different about me to put people in the seats to watch me. With practice, that'll come." He pauses. "And thinking...a lot of thinking," he says quietly. "I've got a long way to go. I know that."

As the thousand-plus fans flocked into the War Memorial Auditorium for the War Games on September 19, a beefy security guard checked through everyone's bags and confiscated weapons. No, not handguns -- things like a hockey stick, umbrella, electric guitar, broom, toilet plunger, and small household electronics. These were all tucked away in three metal garbage cans and then slid inside the door just before the show was to begin.

Just inside the door, Laura Brown, the scrappy 16-year-old novice, sold programs with Vanessa Harding, a shapely long-haired brunet she'd met at the Dr. Death seminar. Harding also wants to break into actual wrestling, but for the time being, she stays close to the action as the "ring girl," which means she retrieves wrestlers' cast-off robes and, basically, looks hot for the predominantly male audience.

Two wrestling rings filled much of the auditorium floor, where eight competitors would battle it out for the Major League Wrestling junior heavyweight championship. What got the crowd to its feet, however, was the "weapons match," for which the barrels of confiscated makeshift cudgels were slid into the ring. This is the down and dirty side of wrestling, which even the cable channels frown on.

"VCR! VCR!" the horde chanted at one point during the five-man armed brawl between the Samoan Island Tribe and a triad of less fierce opponents, including Rich Criado, who'd studied under Dr. Death the night before. A tribe member obliged the audience demand by bashing a black VCR atop his opponent's skull. The metal box buckled, and its target, tempered in the kiln of the wrestling circuit, staggered theatrically and rolled his eyes. The finale came when a giant Samoan leaped out of the ring off the top rope and landed on Criado, who was lying on a folding table, which collapsed beneath them.

Bloodlust was stoked in the audience. Abruptly, two teenage boys in the bleachers flew at each other with fists and pelted away at each other's faces. Spectators turned from the contest below. They crowded for a better look. They hooted. They cajoled. One of the evening's fight promoters, stepping out of his role as matchmaker, sprang up into the bleachers to end the battle above.

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