Ladies, prepare to go to the mat.
Dan Aber pauses his video camera and leads two women wearing only baseball hats and G-strings into what passes for his gym: a large private room above a bowling alley, empty save for a 12-inch-thick wrestling mat on the floor.
Veteran wrestler "Coni," a 34-year-old black woman with a tiny waist and enormous breasts, warms up for the next scene by stretching, giggling, and slapping her own ass in self-congratulatory fashion. Her opponent, "Vera," from South Africa and at least ten years her senior, has never wrestled. She stands in the corner, hands folded politely, awaiting instruction in what will become yet another way South Florida adds to the porn universe.
Women's World Wrestling
Sexual stimulation is a funny and personal matter. Some people get turned on by watching hardcore midget sex; others are aroused by the smell of flowers (seriously it's called antholagnia). Men into the particular fetish of catfighting would rather see ladies make war than make love especially if their clothes come off in the process. But one thing is constant: For every kink in the world, there's someone to capitalize on it. Here, in Wilton Manors, a small operation called Woman's World Wrestling sells custom-made videos to guys who can't get enough of ladies in headlocks and pins. Or who can't wait to put ladies in headlocks and pins: The company also sets up private matches between clients and women a little venture I would soon learn about firsthand.
Woman's World is an admittedly bare-bones operation. Competing companies, like FlamingoWrestling.com out of Fort Lauderdale, spend more on production values, with makeup artists, airbrushing, and special effects. But Aber has no patience for any of that. He films every story himself. He edits movies while they're still in the camera, not on a computer. His studio lighting consists of four floodlights bought from the Home Depot. "The movies we make are not quite mainstream," he says slyly. "They're not quite ready to enter a film festival."
Two days before Christmas, the actresses are eager to wrap up this sucker and go home. "Let's do it in one take," Aber says. "This should be the easiest match." His T-shirt is tucked into his jeans, his dark hair carefully combed. But his authority is slightly diminished by the fact that, one, he is shorter than each of these ladies and, two, he is walking around in his stocking feet (so as not to ruin the mats). Still, like a substitute schoolteacher trying to command respect, he soldiers on. "Come on! We've got to get through this without laughing."
"Yes, Dan," Coni says, humoring him.
"Here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna circle, then lock up in a test of strength," Aber says. "Bring your fingers up" he demonstrates, spreading his hands out like claws "and tense your body. Go breast-to-breast, then sloooowly come to your knees" he lowers himself to demonstrate "and here, you can do either a breast smother, a foot smother, or a hand smother. Improvise as you see fit. Vera, you're going to win the match."
Vera bravely raises her hand and asks exactly what a breast smother is.
"Coni, show her the breast smother."
It does seem self-explanatory, but Coni obliges. She straddles Vera, leans in, shoves her knockers in Vera's face, and wiggles.
Aber nods approvingly. "So that's your basic breast smother."
The script yes, there is a script, tucked into Aber's back pocket calls for the two women to take off their hats and stare each other down, then start a catfight. Pretty standard.
The camera rolls. Vera straddles Coni. After five minutes, it becomes clear that she is quite adept at the breast smother. Maybe too adept.
Cut! "Everything isn't a breast smother," Aber explains, trying to exercise restraint. "Use your legs! Try some scissors! Any type of scissors move looks good. Try some headlocks, ankle locks. Coni, show her you have a much larger repertoire of holds. OK? When I say 'action,' go!"
This time, Coni performs satisfactorily she incorporates a "grapevine," a "surfboard," and a "seated backbreaker." In the final scene, she's supposed to be defeated. But then comes the late plot twist.
After Vera had triumphantly walked away from Coni's lifeless body, Coni suddenly leaps up, grabs Vera's hair, and uses her improv skills: "I'm gonna show you something, Blondie!"
"Come on, Coni," Aber barks. "You've got to sell it a little better! You should know by now! String it out a little more, and when you die, don't just die; make it a little bit more than that! I want to see your legs spread wider that's what makes it look good and what helps sell it. Be louder! Whimper!... That was good, Vera, but crank that hold a little more! Get her ankles tucked in under her armpits! As she's weakening, do a final breast smother. When she stops twitching, check to see that she's knocked out. Do a little breast jiggle, say 'Cheaters never win!,' get your hat, and we'll do a fade. Got it?"
After another try, Aber takes his camera off his shoulder and rolls his eyes. "You're not dead, Coni! How many times did I tell you?" Coni protests, but Aber turns to me, exasperated. "Coni wants to direct and act."
In the 12 years that they've operated Woman's World Wrestling, Aber estimates that he and his business partner, Vinni Veith, have produced 900 videos (including some shot underwater), set up 200 private matches between male clients and female wrestlers, and employed about 100 girls.
Although Aber and Veith sell copies of old videos from their online catalog (at womansworldwrestling.com), their niche is the customized movie. Clients can hand-pick the women they want to see wrestle and write out a script of their own particular fantasy. For example, a guy might want to see tiny Brenda (five feet, 103 pounds) take on stocky Barbara (five-foot-three, 185 pounds) in a battle for the title of head cheerleader. He can specify that he wants to see a few reverse face-sits before the loser gets butt-smothered.
Like any business, Woman's World has its share of hassles. Sometimes the women don't even show up.
On a recent day, Aber and Veith are waiting for a wrestler who was supposed to appear at 12:30 but is now nearly an hour late.
"Oh, they only come when they want something," Veith moans through his thick German accent. "Women are like condoms always in your wallet. You should get rid of her."
"Well," Aber says, smiling at the floor, "we'll see what tomorrow brings."
"Where else can you make $100 an hour without putting out?" Veith asks.
Actually, the women get paid $100 for each 90-minute video, several of which can be shot in a day.
"The girls always win. They never get hurt. The men just get a good kick in the schniedelwutz," Veith says.
In his mid-50s, with messy blond hair, mischievous blue eyes, and leathery skin, Veith says he has neither the time nor patience to tell me the story of how he started a business with Aber, this "dumb schmuck," this "ugly guy." A pack of Winstons in hand, he's off to do better things. He has bigger schnitzel to fry.
"He's like an international man of mystery, huh?" I ask Aber after Veith has left.
"Well, he's international."
The two men were brought together in 1992, Aber is fond of saying, by an unlikely catalyst: Hulk Hogan.
In a movie, Hogan had used a motorcycle that Aber later obtained but wanted to sell. When he placed an ad, Veith answered. They soon became friends and partners.
For their first business venture, they tried buying and selling motorcycles... in France. Aber sent Veith across the pond with thousands of dollars and a few bikes, and they did all right until, as Aber puts it, "the French economy went in the crapper. We sold everything at cost, basically, and he came back with a load of pretzels."
Yes, pretzels. They fashioned a portable business by buying a used people-mover from the airport and installing an oven in it. Working primarily at carnivals and biker rallies, the duo made a decent profit until they optimistically headed to Bike Week in Daytona in 1993 with a massive load of pretzels and failed to sell them. Aber still sounds bitter when he describes how a con artist lied and promised them a stall in a well-trafficked location. Had the Great Bike Week Pretzel Experiment not gone horribly wrong, he says, "There would have been no Woman's World. There would have been Pretzel World."
After that disappointment, they liquidated everything. Veith took a job as a yacht captain; Aber went back to emissions testing. In the summer of '94, things were looking bleak when Aber wandered into the little store where he kept a post office box and heard that there was a women's wrestling business for sale. "So I took the last few dollars I had and made an offer." Veith called from Texas to report that he hated his job. Come back down, Aber said. You can be a partner in the new business. "What kind of business? That's a surprise."
Veith, homeless and broke, had little choice in the matter. He slept in the brick-and-mortar store. They sold their movies via mail-order. The first year was "touch and go." Then, Aber heard about the Internet. In those days, "it took me a half an hour to get online," he says, "and when I did, there was nothing there, just some chatrooms and newsgroups." But a friend built a web page, and with that, everything changed. Suddenly, "we were cutting-edge."
By 1996, the company had upgraded from VHS tapes to CDs and DVDs and was even producing a zine (Woman's World Wrestling Club magazine). That year, Veith opened a satellite operation in Atlanta until a conservative local government told them they were in violation of an ordinance. By May, the City of Oakland Park was on their case as well (citing building code violations), so they closed the store and moved. They've been nestled above the Wilton Manors bowing alley ever since. The biggest change this decade has been technological; clients can now download movies from the site. But such advances are a tradeoff as more customers do business online, Woman's World pays more for bandwidth and site maintenance. Not to mention, more competition has cropped up.
It's obvious from the state of the office that no one is getting rich videos are stored in cardboard boxes, and a blanket of dust covers the cameras, the VCRs, the TVs. But it's a living. Aber says he gets calls every day and estimates that he shoots a dozen matches each month.
These days, Veith stops in only to fix the computers or collect money, while Aber (a Vietnam vet and lifelong bachelor) mans the office. On days that he's feeling disciplined, he might do a little work on his screenplay (a nonporn historical epic that he's secretive about to keep anyone from stealing his idea). Days that he's feeling less ambitious, he might read one of the books lying around: a John Le Carre novel, Putnam's Contemporary German Dictionary, Warrior Women, or A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918.
Ask any of the wrestlers what they think about Aber. "Nice guy," they say. "Very kind-hearted, very caring." "A wonderful person." "A man of his word."
And Veith? "Extremely intimidating." "Cocky." "Vinni's Vinni. I just ignore him." "He hasn't really been around... he's always off doing his schnitzel thing."
But what of the wrestlers themselves? What kind of woman would do such a thing?
"I'm just the straight-up making-love queen," Coni says. "I don't even hit my kids. I'm the Betty Crocker mom. I'm the mother of America." Raised in the Bahamas by a "white American Jew" father and a "Cherokee Indian Bahamian" mother, she married a "white American redneck," had three kids, and worked as a nurse until last year, she says, when she had a house fire and lost her job.
She used to pass by the Woman's World storefront in Oakland Park from time to time and one day decided to pop in. Aber taught her a few introductory moves, "like the cradle hug, where you barricade a girl with her arms and legs together, and rock her like a baby things I never thought I'd do to a grown woman." Her first match, she says, was nerve-racking, "like getting married or losing my virginity."
When her husband discovered what she was up to (his lesbian boss came across Coni's picture online), he refused to talk to her for two weeks. "We live a Christian lifestyle," she explains. "I believe in God, Jesus, and the devil. I believe in following the Ten Commandments to get into the gates of heaven.
"I am not selling my vagina for money," she adds. "I knew from day one this wasn't about sex. This is a sacrifice for my kids. I was a nurse for 13 years. This is better than working 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's better than dealing with patients and blood and urine and specimens and headaches and stress and hassle."
Coni's children aren't fully aware of her side job, but her parents are. Her husband told them over dinner which wasn't so great but still definitely "better than the time my brother came home dressed like a woman and said, 'Mom and Dad, I'm a gay drag queen.'
"They always knew I had a wild hair up my butt; they just never knew when it was going to grow and fly," Coni laughs. They now understand that she's just here to "take my motherly stress out." Her husband's boss has become one of her biggest fans even giving her a $500 gift certificate to Macy's this Christmas. "Last year, I didn't get anything." Her husband's still upset, though. That's why, she insists, today is going to be her last video ever. She's retiring. She's done. But it's not the first time she's said that.
One of Vera's modeling websites lists her age as 47; another says she is 48; her husband says she's appeared in both 40-plus and 50-plus videos. When I ask, she tells me she's 45. Regardless of her true age, her stomach is flat from Pilates classes, her arms toned from workouts five days a week. She never leaves the house without her hair done and makeup on, and she shaves her pubic area every day.
Vera holds down regular gigs at several universities as the nude model for drawing classes. During her 25 years in the modeling business, she's done videos and fashion shoots; at the last one, she made $2,000 for a day's work. She's even been on WSVN-TV (Channel 7) for a segment about people who hold unusual jobs.
"So you're famous!" Coni shrieks.
"There's a big demand for older women," Vera's husband says. Fit 20-something models are easy to come by, but Vera is rare among her age group not to mention reliable, punctual, and eager-to-please.
She never wrestled or played rough as a child. "I only had a sister," she reflects. "We were very feminine. We played with dolls. I never had done anything of this nature." But of wrestling, she says after the shoot, "I absolutely loved it."
As for other men checking out his woman, her husband says, "I find it a turn-on."
But their 15-year-old daughter? Not so much. The couple is open about Vera's vocation; their Boca Raton home is decorated with her photographs. So they had no qualms about showing their daughter the wrestling clip, breast smothers and all. "She looked at it for five minutes," Vera says, "and thought it was stupid."
Another wrestler, Shelli, has two kids and one grandchild, but you wouldn't know it by looking at her. With insanely toned abs, blond curls, a killer tan, and bright blue eyes, she's about as MILFy as they get.
A former office manager who became "a wreck" after getting a divorce, she ended up at Woman's World on a friend's recommendation. "At first, I was very uncomfortable," she says of her first day on the job. "I thought Dan might be sleazy. I thought this might be pornography." She admits that this "environment would turn some people off" and that other gyms have "a nicer selection of fit girls," but she doesn't feel confident enough to move on to jobs with more cachet and better pay. After ten years here, "I know how to tap out and be someone else."
Niki, now 40, has been wrestling since age 28. "I needed extra money. I stopped waitressing, and my friend introduced me to Dan." She used to be a female bodybuilder; now she cleans houses and attends cosmetology school. She wrestles only about two times a month, and her husband, she says, is "OK with it."
As for camaraderie, Niki and Coni invite each other over for dinner, share rides, and shit-talk another wrestler who's not present ("She has a dick! I think she tapes it between her legs!"). Vera feels an affinity for Shelli; she's going to help her get additional work. Between takes, the women discuss their backgrounds, the holidays, and their personal limitations: "Would you suck a big old cock for $1,500?"
"All we offer is wrestling," Aber says. "I'm a liberal guy. I have no problem with prostitution, but you won't find it here."
Aber and Veith say their average customer is a middle-aged, professional male with a bit of disposable income fire chiefs, police officers, even an on-air personality from CNN, someone they won't name. Their most memorable encounter was with a man who set up an appointment and, determined not to be recognized, arrived wearing a mask. He happened to drive up just after an assault had taken place in the street. Cops on the scene, seeing the masked man, stopped him. Without removing his mask, he showed his identification and was allowed to proceed. "We still don't know who it was," Aber says, but it must have been someone important. "I'm convinced it was Newt Gingrich," he says in all seriousness.
Aber compares the private, man-on-woman wrestling sessions to 1940s dancehalls, where men could pay to dance with women. (The price, however, has been adjusted for inflation: Guys pay $300 for an hourlong private match, $150 more if they want it recorded.) "It's a little bit of a lonely hearts club," Aber says. "You can call it 'cheating lite. '"
Enter Jake from Montreal. A civil engineer who vacations in Fort Lauderdale every year, he saunters into the office with a French accent and a huge smile. A pretty fit guy, 51, with pressed khaki pants and black Buddy Holly glasses, he doesn't look all that desperate.
"Every time I am in beautiful Florida, this is one of the landscapes I visit," he says jovially. "I have beaten up a few of the women," he laughs. A few years ago, he explains, he walked past the Oakland Park store and "saw these gorgeous girls" go in. "So of course I followed them."
After watching for an hour, "I was surprised. It looked like fun." So he partook. "It was like gambling the more you lose, the more you want to do it."
Jake has permission to be here. He and his wife have been married for years and have come to an understanding. "I wish she was with another man right now. Another man would spend less money. She is shopping."
Jake's interest in wrestling is as philosophical as it is erotic. "It's a true sport like chess, on a physical level. There is magic in wrestling." In a 20-minute battle, he says, "You're each working hard to defend yourselves. It's a very honest kind of battle. It's not a given. The results are not so obvious up-front it could go either way at any time. You want to try the danger zone that's where the fun is.
"There are really two battles going on," he continues, "the internal and the external. I know this is deep," he laughs, " but you rediscover yourself. You rely on your ego to be exposed. The girl how shall I put it? the seemingly helpless girl crushes your ego, without any sentiment. She sees an opening, and she crushes you. She doesn't even give you a chance. This is where the adrenaline and the confusion sets in."
But is he really into the sporting aspect, or does the chick have to be hot?
"Listen, we are guys," he says. "It's better if she looks feminine. There has to be a contradiction! It's embedded this psychological contradiction. Like Beauty and the Beast I'm the beast, evolutionally speaking, on a primitive level."
Aber looks up from his computer, where he has been answering e-mails: "And I thought it was about two bodies together and a little bit of friction."
The women all say they have no fear of wrestling a man. First of all, in such cases, it is "mandatory" to wear clothes (although Aber won't interrupt private sessions unless a girl yells for him). Slapping the mat twice means that a wrestler gives in (although there's no third party watching to enforce it). "We used to have them sign a waiver agreeing to rules, but they'd just sign 'Abraham Lincoln,'" for anonymity's sake, Aber says. Still, in 12 years, he guesses he's tossed out only four guys.
Coni takes her own precautions: She tells them up-front, "Don't think you can take off my underwear and put your pee-pee in me! I'll kick your ass! Only one man enters this vagina and his name is tattooed on my back, twice."
One time, some French guy picked her up and dropped her three times before she got pissed and told him, "'It's not like I'm your fucking dog.' That turned him on that I opened my mouth! One guy wanted me to physically attack him, like I was robbing him. He wanted me to throw him to the ground and kick him in the nuts really hard. He liked it."
Says Niki: "I'm not scared. I don't think Dan would put me in a situation that would be hurtful. I think he basically knows who his customers are." But she usually sticks to the female matches. "I don't really like guys sweating on me."
But if I really want to know what it's like, why don't I wrestle someone myself? Veith's leaving his phone number seemed not an invitation so much as a dare.
Details on Veith's background are a bit sketchy. He says he ran away from home in Germany at 14 to work on a ship to Africa, but he dodges questions about the years since then. He says he's packing and, in just a few hours, moving to a small town out of state, where he plans to make a living selling a certain German delicacy and I kid you not panning for gold. He's already bought a metal detector.
He brings me into the gym. "Are you ready to wrestle?" he asks, sounding businesslike. I notice that he turns the lock on the door.
"Uh-huh. Where can I change?" Not as bold as the others, who wear bikinis or tank tops and G-strings, I will wrestle in gym clothes.
"You can change in here," he says, and walks away to adjust the mats.
Um, no. I unlock the door, let myself out, and get dressed in the bathroom.
I come back. He locks the door a second time.
"Uh, you don't have to lock the door."
He looks at me sidelong.
I do the risk analysis in my head: He could do anything to me in here, but I happen to know his long-term girlfriend a respected businesswoman who is probably mortified as she reads this through professional circles. I weigh the fact that he won't tell me his full name. "Vinni Schniedelwutz," he says. "Hansel Tallywhacker" (but "Veith" is listed on the company website). On the other hand, he doesn't drink, and he's almost always just joking... Isn't he?
The deciding factor is that I know myself. Running away from a challenge will result in a torturous, self-deprecating agony. So the door remains locked. I kneel with him on the mat.
The first move he tries to teach me is something called the rodeo horse. I cannot remember specifics; it somehow involves my getting body-slammed.
"What did you expect?" he asks. "It's wrestling time, not wussy time."
He tries another move, one that also involves me getting slammed. It doesn't hurt per se; it just makes the blood rush to my head and knocks the breath out of me.
"What's that called?"
Wait I have to write it down in my notebook.
He slams me again. "That one?"
I catch my breath. "How do you spell it?"
"Stop that reporter shit." He takes the pad from my hand.
"What's that one called?"
"An überkinger. I don't know the names in English."
I'm sweating now. This is actually sort of... fun. "You know a lot of moves."
"I had to. My father was a wrestling coach."
"Wait I think Dan mentioned something about you knowing martial arts?"
"Tae kwon do."
"And are you a black belt or what?"
"Two-time German national champ."
"Do you train your wrestlers?"
"I used to, but none of them ever fucking come. That's why the videos are so fucking lame! Who gets turned on by this shit? What kind of man would want to wrestle a woman? A wussy."
As he flips me and slams me a few more times, I get a feeling that I haven't had in a long, long time: a feeling almost like a high I had as a little kid playing tag or fighting or racing.
The second it hurts, Veith lets go. He demonstrates how certain pressure points there are at least 30 of them, he says can be used to inflict pain on someone or, conversely, release stress. He can heal me or hurt me quite competently either way. I'm not sure if that's attractive or scary. Maybe a little of both.
"Damn, you really know what you're doing."
"Of course I do. I was trained as an orthopedic nurse and massage therapist."
"Wait, I thought you were a merchant marine. I mean, a boat captain. I mean... "
He laughs. But he's not interested in explaining.
He flips me again and puts me in some kind of hold. My knees are somewhere near my ears, my spine stretched to its breaking point, my face smushed against the mat. This is checkmate, I know, but I'm too stubborn to ask for mercy. So far, Veith has stayed on the side of gentlemanly, but now the sun is setting, the room is going dark, and insofar as I can feel it, my butt is up in the air. I wonder if his holds are quite so innocent. Not sure quite what to do, I figure I can just hang here for a minute. I squint my eyes but open my mouth for air.
"What are you waiting for, little birdie? Food? No food is coming."
He puts his face in close to mine. I feel his breath on my cheek. The door is locked. I can barely breathe, much less scream. He could do whatever he pleases right now.
He swoops in and smack-smack-smack! kisses me, three rapidfire times on the cheek. Then he laughs and lets me go.
For the final match of this ten-hour workday, four women are gathered around a table, getting ready to "battle for the championship belt." Niki's playing the role of Shelli's manager; Coni's managing Vera.
They've scrounged through bins of props to come up with four pair of high heels, plus terry-cloth wristbands for the contenders' wrists and ankles. Only the "managers" start out with clothes on.
Aber is playing the role of announcer. "We have the first title match," he says. "We have two challengers who have requested meeting for this prestigious title." His acting voice is about as convincing as Coni's. Maybe one day, they will battle for an Oscar.
Vera, checking in at five-foot-10 and 126 pounds, steps forward gracefully and says politely what she probably should be growling: "I plan to win and show no mercy. I don't think Shelli is a worthy opponent. I will prove I'm a worthy opponent. I plan to win the title belt."
The managers check the "contract," sign it, and shake hands.
Filming is halted when what else? Coni starts laughing. "I don't know what serial killer ordered this up, but we're doing it!"
Aber puts a halt to the jibber-jabber. "This is where we lose a tremendous amount of time. I get feedback that [being believable] makes the video a lot more desirable. I have to please a customer."
"Yes, sorry, Dan."
"Instead of saying sorry, stay focused. Crack up now, get it out. But when the camera is rolling, think of not getting paid!"
With that, there is a renewed energy in the room. When he presses record, they actually get sort of into it. The "managers" jump into the fray, and all four start to pull off actual holds: A seated backbreaker! A torpedo hold! A double ankle-lock! A chin-lock!
"I told you, body-slam her!"
"Buck her off of you!"
"Butt-smother her! Do it!"
After a few minutes of grunting and sweating, Niki and Shelli defeat Coni and Vera, leaving their bodies on the mat, unconscious. The winners start walking out of the room. Then they think better of it and bend down to lift Coni's dress over her head. They drag her limp body and lay it across Vera's, leaving the two in a naked, tired heap.
Shelli snaps the championship belt around her waist.
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"Victory is yours!" Niki says. They high-five.
Satisfied at last, Dan does a fade-out.