Dreams of WWE Stardom Motivate Broward Wrestler Ernest Valdes

Dreams of WWE Stardom Motivate Broward Wrestler Ernest Valdes
Photo by KarliEvans.com

Ernest Valdes stands on top of the ring's ropes and uses his championship belt as a mirror. He primps into the gold plastic's reflection, making sure his hair -- oil-spill slick with leave-in conditioner -- is perfectly in place. Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" blasts through the speakers of the Port St. Lucie Civic Center.

The svelte Cuban wrestler has defended his title for another evening, meaning he's still considered the most popular entertainer at Championship Wrestling Entertainment (CWE) -- one of 14 independent wrestling leagues in Florida.

The smooth-chested grappler has highlighted, Fabio-like tresses he wears in a bun. He is very shiny. In the ring, he wears red spandex shorts emblazoned with the letters "ERA" on his ass. It's the acronym for his stage name, Ernest Randall Alexander, and also a nod to the idea that he represents "the next era in professional wrestling." If you ask him for an introduction, he'll turn around, wiggle the logo, and quip that he also goes by the nickname "Your Girlfriend's Favorite Wrestler."

The audience -- McDonald's employees touting (recent) Foreigner tour T's, grandpas gumming unlit cigars, and bored single women looking for a night away from Netflix -- goes wild for the company's svelte tag-team champion and his Mohawked partner, Maxx Stardom, AKA Ricky Martinez. As they leave the ring, a chubby 8-year-old chugs an entire Sprite can and high-fives his mop-topped friend. Redneck dads cheer one another with coozied Miller Lite bottles and adjust their NASCAR caps in agreement.

But Valdes is most popular with women. After he steps out of the ring, second-grade teacher Julie Caiazzo nervously approaches, hoping he'll sign her eight-by-ten photo. "She thinks he's attractive, so she's nervous," says her friend, a small-featured pharmacy technician named Cathy Sangiudo.

"They're studs. They have that Miami machismo."

"We like this guy -- he's cute," Caiazzo concedes with a giggle. "He makes me feel 27 going on 13."

The event promoter, Christopher Quinones, has a chinstrap beard and rectangular, wire-framed glasses and walks with a cane. He says ERA and Stardom -- who together go by the name 5-Star Era -- are a big draw. Sometimes Valdes plays a baby face or a hero, and other times he's a heel or a villain. "Their gimmick is that they're studs," Quinones explains. "They have that Miami machismo."

Ten years into his career, 27-year-old Valdes is at a crossroad: He has achieved minor celebrity but not accomplished his life's goal of making it onto the roster of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), pro wrestling's top company. His next goal is to move up to a bigger league and hopefully score a tryout for the WWE.

Here in Port St. Lucie, the "South Beach Sensation" is a big deal, but if he wants to make it to the big time, Valdes faces a couple of serious setbacks. First off, he's only six feet and weighs just 208 pounds -- hardly a Hulk. Second is the issue of his lineage: About half the guys who get called up to WWE superstardom are legacy wrestlers who have family in the business. On that front, Valdes does not even come close.

On this Friday night, he suffers a third setback on his journey to the top: disrespect. About 15 minutes after he's done posing for photos, the sweat-glistened wrestler is kicking Quinones' cane out from under his hand. Quinones is quivering and speechless.

"How are you gonna disrespect me like that, you insignificant piece of shit?" Valdes rages. In the wrestler's hand is a stack of eight-by-tens bearing his handsome face, which he snatched from a folding table near the door.

When the wrestler had arrived earlier in the evening, Quinones' mother made ERA suffer a small indignity by demanding that his fiancée pay a $5 entrance fee. Then, she tried to squeeze some extra cash by selling ERA headshots for $1. Now, he's discovered that someone stole his secret weapon while he was in the ring: his baby oil.

After giving Quinones his comeuppance, the tag-team partners storm through double doors and out into the inky night.

"First that old lady comes and bitches at us, then they try to sell pictures of us, and then somebody steals my oil," he seethes to Martinez. "Steals my oil! Who does that? Who snatches my shit? My God!"

"This company's a piece of shit," Martinez agrees, shaking his head. "This doesn't happen anywhere but here." The 25-year-old, who works as a dent repair specialist by day, is wearing matching arm and leg pants with green and black leopard print.

The wrestlers and their girlfriends, 25-year-old Amy Valle and 18-year-old Yasmine Ramos, pile into a black SUV. Then they head to a nearby Shell station. The men's earnings from the evening's three hours of exhausting labor -- $15 apiece -- goes directly into the gas tank. Next stop will be a $45 motel room near Kissimmee.

Tomorrow, ERA will perform in a videotaped match for Afa Anoa'i -- a WWE Hall of Famer and uncle of Dwayne Johnson, AKA "The Rock" -- who runs the Wild Samoan Training Center out of Minneola, near Orlando. That's also where matches are held for World Xtreme Wrestling (WXW), one of the country's 50 professional promotions.

Valdes and Martinez are eager to impress, because Anoa'i is one of the rare people powerful enough to recommend a wrestler to the WWE and arrange a tryout.

So despite the indignities and discouragement, they're ready to continue on their journey. If all goes well, they'll be done with the smaller, independent promotions for the rest of their lives and one step closer to the WWE.


Ernest Valdes, known in the ring as ERA, poses with trainer Alex Gibson.
Ernest Valdes, known in the ring as ERA, poses with trainer Alex Gibson.
Photo by KarliEvans.com

The $15 they earned for the night is "not a lot, but it's better than nothing, and we need to get to WXW," Valdes yells over the sound system, which is blasting group favorite Dane Cook, cranked to 11. "That company is legit. It's a 100 percent bona fide maker in this business."

Three-year-old Ernie Valdes was taking a bath when the door frame filled with the shadow of an imposing figure. Before he knew what hit him, flashes of hot pain were all over his tiny, soap-lathered body. His father, yet again, was piss-drunk and looking for someone to beat up. The future acrobat dashed out of the tub and toward his mother, Mercedes, who was folding laundry on the other side of their Fort Lauderdale duplex.

"Help me, Mami, help me!" the little boy remembers wailing before slipping on the square white tile and sliding all the way to the end of a 20-foot hallway. He hit the wall so hard that it left a dent.

Mercedes, a long-faced woman from outside Havana, married her husband when she was only 15. The young couple fled to Trenton, New Jersey, from Cuba and eventually settled in South Florida around 1988. "My dad was a hustler," explains Valdes. "Whatever you needed, he could get." And while that mostly meant procuring and hocking jewelry with an Uncle Ernesto, it also meant getting loaded with seedy characters and coming home angry. Although he was merciless with Mercedes, the bearded hustler laid his hands on young Valdes exactly once.

That July night, after the drunk dad had passed out, Mercedes packed up Valdes and his 11-year-old brother, Ralphy, and headed for a nearby shelter home. They stayed there for about eight months, bouncing around to impermanent homes in Hialeah, South Miami, and eventually Pembroke Pines.

Valdes' second memory was also terrifying: It's when King Kong Bundy faced off against Hulk Hogan in Saturday Night's Main Event. The 3-year-old was chasing a cousin down a long hallway when he veered off into another family member's bedroom. There sat all the older cousins crowded around a tiny television. He stopped dead in his tracks.

He would steal his mom's collection of old coins and affix them to Scotch tape to make wrestling belts.

The match had just ended, and the beer-guzzling Andre the Giant came up to Hogan from behind, placing his hands on his shoulders and choking him. Valdes remembers shaking at the sight of the seven-foot-four monster.

But four years later, his horror turned to fascination. He would steal his mom's collection of old coins and affix them to Scotch tape to make wrestling belts. He was so skinny, it would take only a handful of lined-up chips to wrap around his sunken waist.

Older brother Ralphy would use him as a punching bag, practicing the body slams and bumps he saw on TV. Ernest didn't mind. In fact, he grew to love it and thought of the world as his stage.

"When he was little, he would just call out people's heights and weights rather than calling them by name," his mother, now 51, explains between puffs of a Newport at her dining room table. She shares this modest apartment with her Peruvian husband, Carlos; Ernie and his fiancée; and Mercedes' 17-year-old autistic son, David, who sleeps in the living room. "So when he says he's been a wrestler for ten years, that's a lie. He's been a wrestler all of his life."

While wrestling was an interest growing up, singing was his passion. Peers at his middle school and his mom's second beau, a former Latin King, would call him "faggot" for idolizing artists like Justin Timberlake.

"My mother dated a lot of heels," says Valdes. "It wasn't the prettiest story." The picked-on kid finally caught a break when a 19-year-old, Anjel Heredia, invited him to join a boy band called Entity. In the summer before he and the band started high school, Valdes traveled to Key West to perform on MTV's now-defunct show Say What: Karaoke. He lied to the producers to get on-air, saying he was 16 even though he was only 14 at the time.

It was the time of Valdes' life: He met 'NSync crooner Lance Bass and peeped rapper Xzibit smoking a poolside blunt. "From that point on, I was hooked on show business," he says. And although the band performed Backstreet Boys' "Everybody" as a twosome that day and didn't win, they later recruited three other guys and tried to forge a record deal at the height of the Backstreet Boys' fame. Although he was the youngest and smallest member of the group, Valdes quickly asserted himself as the leader.

"When you put him onstage, he just takes over," Heredia says. "But his ego was getting ahead of him, and he wanted it to be all about him. He would say, 'Give me more parts. I'm who people are here to see.'"

Ultimately, Heredia says, the guys squabbled over members of a local girl group. They couldn't reconcile even when they were on the cusp of a deal with Elektra Records, arguing over stipulations of their proposed contract.

Executives wanted them to go to Europe and wear tight, leather leopard-print outfits. Amid the infighting, a member named Richard Lugo persuaded the execs to let him go as a solo act, and Valdes didn't get in on the deal. (The Dominican opened for acts like 'NSync and was touted as the next Ricky Martin, although he had only one, noncharting single in the U.S.)

After trying briefly to perform alone under the moniker Casanova, Valdes set his sights on another booming industry based out of Orlando: professional wrestling. His friend Juan Velez had built a backyard rig at an abandoned radio station near his mom's home in Hialeah Gardens. He set up used mattresses as the padded floor, shopping carts as turnstiles, and garden hoses as ropes. Ernie started showing up and calling himself Lil E. "We thought because he was so small that he'd be one of the guys who'd show up once and never come back," Velez remembers. "But he ended up taking it much more seriously than most of us."


Valdes grapples with female wrestler ?Dynamite? Didi Cruz. In the business, women fighters are known as divas.
Valdes grapples with female wrestler ?Dynamite? Didi Cruz. In the business, women fighters are known as divas.
Photo by KarliEvans.com

Recognizing his talent and stage presence, a friend suggested he enroll in wrestling school at Body Slam University in Pompano Beach. Alex Gibson, the trainer, noticed "he only has to be taught something once." Gibson told him he had something special. After that compliment, the 18-year-old was hooked, forking over a $300 deposit and agreeing to pay $50 a month, which he would do for the next two-and-a-half years.

It helped that he had a look and understood how to work a crowd from his boy-band days. Valdes changed his name from Lil E to ERA and invented a host of other hyperbolic nicknames, such as "The Undisputed Pinnacle of Homosapien Achievement."

But while that name might not suggest it, Valdes was born slighted. There are two royal families in wrestling: the Samoans and the Harts. Their sons go on to become wrestlers, and their daughters go on to marry them. Over the course of three generations, such dynasties have come to dominate the industry.

In contrast, Ernie's singular brush with greatness came from working for his mom's paramedical company, which takes body-fluid samples for insurance companies. He still gushes over the time he got to hold a vial of Chris Bosh's urine in his hand: "I thought for a crazy second, if I drank it, would I get some of his greatness?"

Only about 20 percent of the talent on the WWE's current roster of 54 got there by doing what Valdes does: putting in an extraordinary amount of time in civic centers and VFW halls, sleeping in cars, subsisting on toxic amounts of fast food, and frequently ending up in the hole after a weekend of thankless and painful work.

There's no clear path to the WWE, explains David Shoemaker, author of The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. "You work your way up from smaller shows to bigger regional shows and try to get on people's radar," he says. "At the end of the day, the wrestling world is not that big. If you're working some tiny show with 50 people and the promoters pay $500 to get a big-name former star there, he can see you wrestle and tell people who matter to go check you out."

Chris Spradlin, one of the best-known independent wrestlers in the world, had a developmental contract with the WWE for 21 months. The 34-year-old -- better-known as Chris Hero -- trained in Ohio, Japan, Atlanta, and Ocala before making a name for himself. He was wrestling in Ring of Honor -- widely regarded as the third-best pro league in the country -- when he got a call from a WWE road agent.

He says that the industry is very tight and that tryouts are typically awarded to people through word of mouth.

"[WWE trainers] would ask us to name five guys we'd worked with in the past who we thought deserved a tryout," he explains. "If you have a good rapport with a certain trainer, then you have enough equity built up so that people trust your opinion."

Even if someone does make it to the WWE, he might make only $250 to $750 a week.

Wrestling promoters determine who wins championship belts based on crowd reaction. Entertainers who get the crowds riled up are the biggest draws, so businessmen showcase them to boost ticket sales.

So far, Valdes has become the champion at six of the state's independent promotions. His next goal is to hold a title belt at one of the country's professional leagues. There are about 50 in the United States, including two for women, one for Juggalos, and another for Christian wrestlers. As a matter of convenience, he has his sights set on WXW in Minneola. He hopes that league will catapult him to the holy grail: the WWE.

And even if someone does make it to the WWE and gets a developmental contract, he or she might make only $250 to $750 a week, several wrestlers report. Then they have to fight for airtime on NXT, a televised farm team. From there, maybe 10 percent of them will make it onto the WWE roster.

Still, even if they become one of the 50 or so top wrestlers in the world, only the fan favorites appear on Raw and Wrestlemania, tour arenas around the country, and make millions selling merchandise like toy figurines and T-shirts.

"It's like the old saying about writing a book," says Shoemaker, the author. "Out of every million people who say they want to write a book, only one starts. And out of every million people who start, only one finishes. It's one thing to get signed but a totally different thing to become John Cena."

When Alex Gibson first started training in the 1980s, that meant driving to Tampa every weekend and returning home to his mother with black eyes and bruised ribs. Back then, kayfabe -- the practice of making the drama seem real -- was strictly enforced.

Although he was an accomplished grappler at North Miami High School, Gibson would get positively pummeled in every match with the pro wrestlers who traveled the regional circuit back then. It was only after six months that he was told about the initiation process and realized he was undergoing a form of hazing as a "greenback."

"They wanted to make sure this is really what you wanted to be doing," he says. "They wanted to know you had what it took." He's sitting in his office at the Spot Training Center in Hollywood, where he now coaches Ernest Valdes.

After he'd proved himself as a willing punching bag, Gibson, who is now 51, was asked to take a vow of silence and never reveal the scripted nature of wrestling to anyone. "I couldn't tell my girlfriend or my mom," he remembers.

Upon signing a nondisclosure agreement, he became "Soulman Alex G." and entered a world in which he was required to act 24 hours a day. His new job in wrestling meant he had to keep secrets from those closest to him and could hang out only with the peers who played good guys. "Baby faces and heels couldn't run together. You couldn't ride out to a Burger King with someone you were supposed to have a rivalry with. We had to make it seem like we really hated each other."


Although wrestling matches have predetermined winners, participants often suffer concussions or broken bones.
Although wrestling matches have predetermined winners, participants often suffer concussions or broken bones.
Photo by Harmony Graphic Designs

It made sense: There were hundreds of regional leagues across the country, and people generally lived where they worked.

"When wrestling used to air locally, you thought the only wrestling in the world was your local operation," says Shoemaker. "But Vince McMahon was a visionary because he realized wrestling was going to be a national enterprise, and it wasn't going to happen with shows going all over the country."

With the invention of cable television came the opportunity to consolidate the diffuse industry and make big bucks. And that's exactly what the current WWE CEO did. The entrepreneurial New Jersey native used the millions his dad had made running the regional circuit in the Northeast to buy up all the indie talent and bring it to a national league, then called the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).

McMahon bought Hulk Hogan from the American Wrestling Association out of the Midwest and Ric Flair out of the National Wrestling Alliance in the Southwest. Although those are probably the most recognizable names to nonfans, McMahon bought up enough celebrities from the local circuits to effectively kill off any competition.

Wrestling exploded in the national consciousness. The sport was full of larger-than-life characters, and people argued over whether the competition was real. But with a greater audience came more government scrutiny. In 1989, McMahon was forced to break kayfabe by delivering a statement to the New Jersey Senate that wrestling was not a "bona fide athletic contest." He wanted to skirt the 10 percent surtax the state's athletic commission put on sporting events' TV revenues.

In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article, insiders lamented that the sport had been castrated. Others said the industry was doomed.

But actually, the opposite happened. The 1990s became known as the "Attitude Era" in wrestling -- a time period in which story lines became less family-friendly and more violent and sexualized. This programming birthed both the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin -- natural-born entertainers who could rile up a crowd even if it knew the event was rigged.

Independent promotions began popping up around the country again. The -proliferation of these indie leagues and the glorification of superstars like the Rock is the exact environment that birthed Ernest Valdes.

After enrolling in wrestling school, he stepped up the intensity. He trained six days a week and worked two fast-food jobs, he says, so he could buy a car. Then he toured the country to perform in indie leagues as far away as Chicago.

Although many other wrestlers could afford acting classes, Valdes was sleeping in his car. So every day, he would practice a shtick in front of the mirror for 30 minutes -- a habit he keeps to this day.

"It's a technique taught to me by veterans in this business," he explains. "When you're talking, the scouts look at your facial expressions and your hands. So I get in front of the mirror and just talk about anything while recording myself."

No matter what he was riffing on, the main point was to be a "really egotistical guy" who hails from South Beach, he says. He also developed a handful of signature moves, including the Third Strike, which involves smashing an opponent in the face with an elbow after getting a running start. But mainly he would become known for his "high flying" or daredevilish moves off the ropes. A favorite finishing blow involves pinning an enemy after backflipping from a turnstile.

The gimmick worked well, and Valdes became the champion of Uknow Pro, the tiny company run by Gibson's school -- an accomplishment that meant he no longer had to pay to use the gym there. Now his presence draws in younger students.

Having dominated his local scene, his next step is to begin competing in the WXW. If he impresses Afa Anoa'i, the connected Hall of Famer might be able to score him a tryout with a quick phone call to the WWE's developmental center in Orlando, where its up-and-coming stars train.

"That Samoan bloodline is royalty in this business," Valdes explains.

You know, Sweet Rhythm, you may have walked away with the WXW tag-team championships, but we walked away with something much, much more better, " ERA boasts into the camera while wearing a royal-blue feather boa. "We walked away with our dignity." He's cutting a promo -- a segment of smack talk that, along with video of today's wrestling match, will be transferred to DVD and sold online.

From a card table about five feet back sits a huge man with curly, shoulder-length hair that's streaked with gray. The giant practically bursts through his Hawaiian shirt. He watches Valdes improvise from a ten-inch Toshiba monitor that is flashing the word "Simulated."

This is the man Valdes has been waiting his entire life to impress.

Afa Anoa'i is known here as Pops. He's helped many a person move from the indies to the professional leagues.

For one, he trained Batista, the WWE's current superstar. More recently, one of his protégés, Nick Nero, scored a gig as an extra at a pay-per-view event and was subsequently asked to try out for WWE scouts. Another trainee, a Hawaiian named Noah Kekoa, scored a developmental contract from the WWE at the same time. Starting in October, he'll be a part of NXT -- the televised farm league that aims to vet people for the main roster.

"I'm able to pick up the phone and call WWE to recommend my students," Anoa'i explains. "They get the opportunity to be looked at because I only recommend talent that is ready. You only get one first impression."

In March, Valdes performed at the Miami Youth Fair and was approached by Chris Russo, WXW's president, backstage. Two months later, he did a trial run to see how the Minneola crowd would react to ERA's "South Beach Sensation" gimmick. It went well, and now 5-Star Era is being given a second test. They will be pitted against the company's championship team, and if they perform well in that match, they will be on their way to the title.


After winning six championship titles in indie leagues, Valdes has his sights set on a pro belt.
After winning six championship titles in indie leagues, Valdes has his sights set on a pro belt.
Photo by Harmony Graphic Designs

The story line for tonight has been prepared, and Valdes will lose. But if the crowd likes him, Anoa'i will start him on a three-match trajectory that will lead to him usurping the title from Sweet Rhythm -- an aging team also from South Florida that includes Sweet, a flamboyant 40-year-old man with penciled-in eyebrows and a long ponytail, and his partner, Kirby. If he grows into the role, a top spot at WXW means he'll almost certainly get WWE producers' attention.

The fans sitting ringside at Minneola's City Hall see none of the backstage maneuvering. Little kids crowd around the office where the promos are being shot, but wrestlers going in and out barely open the door so that no one can peek inside. While the adults in attendance know that the rivalries here aren't real, it's important to keep up kayfabe for the more naive fans who still believe. After all, WXW is a family event, and excited kids are crucial to ticket sales.

Also crucial is Anoa'i's legacy connections; sometimes a huge star like the Rock will come in for a guest match. But most likely, these 200 people have just paid $5 to watch ascendant local stars like ERA.

Although the building lacks air conditioning, it is not totally bereft of amenities. Spectators can snack on $3 poutine and dollar Cokes from a concession stand. Old-school fans can pick up an old photo of Anoa'i captioned with "personal trainer to Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler." The fashion-forward set can cop his-and-hers shirts that say, respectively, "Wrestler in Training" or "Diva in Training."

As they wait for the match to begin, the wrestlers' girlfriends are all lined up on a single bleacher. Although they're by far the most glammed-up women in the place, their favorite topic of conversation is the metrosexual qualities of their partners.

Valdes and Martinez sprint down the ramp in their feather boas and leap into the 20-by-20-foot ring.

Valdes' girlfriend, Amy Valle, turns to Marie, a glitter-covered Australian woman who's here to support her husband, the absolutely massive Outback Silvaback. Their two beaus have just emerged from primping in the back and are now practicing maneuvers together in the ring.

"Ernie wears more hair product than I do," Valle sighs. "Ladies, when we're in the WWE, we'll all remember when we were sitting here in WXW and laugh. You've just gotta think like that."

"You do," says Marie, gravely. "You really do."

Five matches go by before Valdes and Martinez sprint down the ramp in their feather boas and leap into the 20-by-20-foot ring. Both of them stand on the ropes straddling the turnstiles and face the crowd as elementary-aged girls pound against the mat screaming their heads off like they're at a One Direction concert.

When Sweet Rhythm roll into the ring with a running start, Valdes and Martinez start kicking their opponents in synchronicity. Still moving as a team, they pick them up, swing them by the arms, and send them careening into the opposite ropes.

On the way back, though, Sweet Rhythm recover, using their momentum to spring into the air and kick their opponents square in the face. They steal the feather boas and wrap them around their necks in mocking triumph.

After that, Martinez and Kirby tag out, leaving just Valdes fighting Sweet in the ring. After every blow, Valdes works on his new gimmick: acting deranged. As Sweet lies on the ground after a particularly punishing move, Valdes sits just outside the ropes, his tongue lolling out of his mouth and his hands running through his hair like he's in a sensual shampoo commercial.

A little blond girl in a pink romper and a ponytail is cheering on the other team."Screw you!" he yells in her face.

Martinez and Kirby return, and 11 minutes in, Valdes is standing with Kirby on his shoulders. He's facing a turnstile helmed by Martinez. In a beautiful display of athleticism, the Mohawked wrestler jumps over the human totem pole and onto Sweet, who's lying on the ground beyond them. Seconds later, both members of 5-Star Era have their respective opponents pinned to the ground.

The referee counts down -- 3, 2, 1 -- but -- shockingly! -- declares Sweet Rhythm the winners: Valdes and Kirby were the only legal men in the ring, which means that 5-Star Era lost the belt on a technicality.

The little girl whom Valdes heckled jumps up and down as 5-Star Era fake shock and anger at the loss. She sticks her tongue out as ERA stomps past. She goes "Pfffft" as Valdes heads back up the ramp and behind the curtain in a huff.

After the match, Valdes disappears into the office where the promos had been shot earlier. At Anoa'i's insistence, a reporter is not allowed inside. Young girls stick around after the match as wrestlers dismantle the ring and pack it up, seeking hugs and autographs. A blond tries to peek inside the back room to get a glimpse of ERA.

About 20 minutes later, Valdes emerges with a smile. A WWE producer gave him great news. He gave Valdes hope.


"He told me to be patient and not to worry if I don't get a call immediately but to expect one between September and November," Valdes repeats. "He said a lot of guys get discouraged when the call doesn't come right away, and he warned me not to be that guy." He also got good news from Anoa'i: Based on the success of the match, he'd decided to go forward with a story line that would make 5-Star Era the next tag-team champions by the company's six-year anniversary on September 20.

"He just needs to keep going and doing what he's doing," says Anoa'i by phone later. "At the end of the match, I told him I was happy with his skills in the ring and told him to keep up the good work, because his team did a good job."

But a lot can go wrong before then. Valdes remembers a friend who finally got his long-awaited call -- but had broken his ankle the day prior and couldn't perform.

And even if he makes it to the point of signing a contract, it can all be taken away in an instant. Noah Kekoa, the Hawaiian student of Anoa'i's who signed a developmental contract in July, suffered a severe concussion the next Saturday after getting kicked in the face. It's unclear how long it will be before he can get back in the ring.

Valdes isn't sure what he'll do if pro wrestling doesn't work out. He thinks he could become a cop. Or that his brother could get him a job as a TSA agent. He's also got his eye on becoming a sales rep for Herbalife. But he won't give up wrestling until he's at least 30.

As he begins the nearly five-hour ride back to South Florida, though, Valdes is ecstatic. The possibility of failure is the furthest thing from his mind.

"Did you see Sweet Rhythm had to cut their promos ten times?" Valdes yells from the driver's seat of the SUV. He's flying down I-95 after the match, his adrenaline pumped. "Right after the match, we go and do our promo -- boom, one take. I'm not trying to be cocky, but I'm just saying, we're ready."

"Baby, it's gonna happen," girlfriend Amy coos from the passenger side. In the back seat, Martinez is asleep with Ramos passed out in his lap.

"Fuck that!" Valdes shoots back. "It should happen now! We deserve it!"

One week later, Valdes sits in his mom's office in Sweetwater. He's looking on Craigslist for places in Apopka, a town 30 minutes from the Wild Samoan Training Center.

He has reason to be excited. Since his match, WXW made a deal with Brighthouse cable that would broadcast the league to 250,000 homes in the area. "It'll be a ton of exposure," Valdes explains.

"All those guys who said I'd never make it? I'm on the brink of a WWE tryout. Big things come in small packages."

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