The improvised locker room off the Broward Community College gymnasium in Pembroke Pines reeks pleasantly from the wintergreen smell of liniment. Yard-long submarine sandwiches line tables along the wall. As cheers and jeers drift in from the gym, hulking men with long hair or no hair, many wearing brief black leather outfits, watch a TV screen showing the violent action in the wrestling ring outside. They munch, comment critically on moves, and kid around. Someone walks in carrying a bat wrapped in barbed wire. "Is that a bat in your hand, or are you just happy to see me?" quips one of the seated giants.
Over in a corner, two massive, muscular men intently rehearse moves, called "spots," for the evening's main event. "Dance, chop, cover, kick out, dance, shoot, slam," says Native American Chris "Tatanka" Chavis, in a rhythmic singsong to his ostensible foe, Marty "the Rocker" Jannetty. Like jumbo-size ballroom dancing partners, they do a slow walkthrough.
Nearby, dwarfed by the giant gladiators, Chasyn Rance and "Fabulous Frank" prepare for their match, which is next on the card. Rance is a short, slender 16-year-old with long black hair in a ponytail. He looks more suited to the Bloomingdale's modeling gig he just came from than to the ring mayhem he's about to enter. With only two prior pro matches, Rance still lacks a true ring persona, so he wears black martial-arts garb as he actually holds a black belt in karate. Frank is thin-shouldered and dorky-looking. He wears street clothes because he's supposed to be a manager. An even skinnier young woman, "Jodi X," listens in. She will referee the match.
Frank, who will play the bad guy, or "heel," hands Rance a small container of Coffee-Mate. It's not for his java but rather to throw in Frank's eyes during the match. That won't be the decisive move. "I'll beat him cleanly. That's scripted," says Rance, a sinewy 130-pounder who will be introduced by the ring announcer as weighing 165 pounds. Almost everything else will be improvised, based on an overall story line written by promoter-wrestler Bobby Rogers. According to the script, Frank wants to settle the score from a previous match, in which Rance played the referee. The wrestler whom Frank was managing lost to Jodi X, supposedly because of Rance's bad officiating. "It's a very entertaining, ongoing story, like the weekly TV shows," boasts Rogers as he walks by with real blood on his forehead from an earlier match.
Just then the story takes an unscripted dramatic turn. Rance's mother, Shari Gherman-Rance (the advertising director of this newspaper) storms into the locker room, says something angrily to her son, then marches out. "What was that about?" the karate kid is asked.
"She says that if my match doesn't start right now, I'm going to have to leave," says Rance, an 11th-grade honors student at Michael Krop High in North Miami Beach. Mom's worried that her son will miss his bus to Jewish leadership-training camp in Atlanta at 11 o'clock that night.
Jewish mothers generally aren't a big problem for Rogers and his Future of Wrestling organization, which is one of the farm leagues of pro wrestling. Rance is the only minor in the stable. Most of the crew are car salesmen, computer programmers, and others with mundane day jobs who hunger for TV wrestling stardom and riches and who hope to get their start through $50 gigs in Rogers' shows. There are also onetime national stars like Chavis and Jannetty who work local shows like these for $300 to $500 just to stay in the business. Rogers regularly fills small halls with as many as 500 fans, who pay $8 a head. Hoping to capitalize on the current national wrestling craze, he plans to expand from one or two shows a month to three or four.
But fans increasingly want the gore they see on TV wrestling shows. So Rogers is offering more-violent action, known as the hard-core or extreme style -- including wrestlers crashing through tables and bashing each other with chairs and garbage cans. They sometimes suffer serious injuries. Rogers, who wrestles under the moniker "Hardcore Hero," says he has fractured his back and sustained six concussions. Even wrestlers who stick to the classic style of acrobatic kicks and flips experience frequent and occasionally severe injuries. In Florida, however, there is no government regulation of the sport's safety. "Wrestling is sports entertainment," Chavis notes, "but the moves we do can actually hurt people very seriously."
That was obvious in the match between Rance and Fabulous Frank. As Rance slid under the ropes to enter the ring, his grandmother, Joan Walters, stood up and gleefully shouted, "He's vicious, he's vicious." She was part of the story line, too. Before the match Fabulous Frank warned that if Rance's granny tried to hit him with her handbag, he "would love nothing more than to smack her around."
One of Rance's first moves was to climb to the top rope and leap ten feet down onto the concrete floor outside the ring to deliver a feigned forearm smash to Frank's head. "I never tried it before, but I thought it would be fine," he says later. It wasn't. He landed so hard that he thought he broke both feet. After that Frank's "manager" grabbed Rance's long black hair and flung him into the steel barrier that keeps the fans back from the ring. Because his feet were hurting so much, the teenager couldn't put the brakes on and stop his head from smashing into the railing. "I hit it a little, no big deal," says Rance, who dislocated his shoulder in a match earlier this year.
Despite the pain he finished the match by pinning his supposedly unconscious opponent, then stealing his wallet. Jodi X slipped a Tshirt on the defeated heel that read, "Frank is gay." The crowd of almost 400, composed disproportionately of nine-year-old boys, stood on chairs and chanted, "Frank is gay, Frank is gay." Homophobic gibes, it seems, are a key part of wrestling rhetoric. Then the ruthless Rance changed persona and rushed off to catch his bus to camp. His feet, though not broken, were so bruised that he couldn't dance the hora and had to return home two days early.
Rance wasn't the only wrestler smarting after the show. Billy "Samurai Kid" Fives sported a knot on the back of his head from falling on a garbage can in the ring. "I'm going to be one sore puppy tomorrow," he said. His opponent, "Anthony Adonis," was bleeding from one ear. He had received a head butt in an earlier match that day, and the wound reopened during his bout with Fives. "Yeah it hurt, and it still hurts," he said, as if the question were moronic.
Pat "Mr. Extreme" McGuire peeled a bandage off his forehead to reveal a latticework of bleeding cuts and a purple lump. The cuts occurred when he "juiced," the term for when wrestlers nick themselves with a concealed razorblade to gush blood and whip up the audience. The lump resulted from getting conked by a garbage can. "I thought at first that he broke my nose," McGuire says. He's hardened to this abuse. A week before, he got tangled up in barbed wire surrounding the ring. "I thought I'd get scarred, but it healed," he says. Earlier this year he was hurled onto a table covered with 2000 tacks. "That was fun, but it took a long time to get those tacks out."
The sport can be hazardous even to spectators. Bernadette Haugdahl was leaning her head against the barrier outside the ring when veteran wrestler Rusty Brooks accidentally slammed into it. The seven-year-old took a solid shot to the forehead and started crying. An alarmed Brooks reached over and stroked her hair, then resumed slugging his foe. Her father rushed off for an ice pack. After the show, with an impressive bump on her noggin, the brave little redhead asked the behemoth Brooks for an autograph. He bent down and gave her a hug. "She'll remember this show," her father says.
Rance's pro career started last December when he started training with Brooks in his backyard ring in Hollywood. In his first match in June, Rance played a masked bandito named "El Lobo." But he quickly retired that character. "With the mask on, the girls couldn't see my face," he explains.
Joan Walters says she thought her grandson's long-standing ambition to become a pro wrestler would pass. "I said to him, 'A doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief, but a wrestler?'" she recalls. Now she fears that he's seriously smitten. "I just pray he won't get hurt," she says. His mother is upset that wrestling is all he thinks about, and he isn't reading great literature. "What you put into your mind is what you get out," says Gherman-Rance. "This wrestling soap opera stuff is as low as you can get." She forbade him from participating in a match last month in Titusville.
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Nevertheless Rance is looking ahead to his next bout. He's intrigued by a rumor on an Internet wrestling bulletin board that he will face off against Fabulous Frank and Jodi X in a three-way "hair" match, in which the loser's head is shaved by the other two. Jodi's hair flows down to her waist. Rance has had shoulder-length hair most of his life. "I doubt Jodi would go for it, and neither would I, so the loser would have to be Frank," he says. But then, in the true spirit of wrestling, he reconsiders. "If they paid me a lot of money..."