Dr. Death is sweating like hell. His tree-trunk legs are planted on the wrestling-ring mat as he peers over the edge at a ruddy-faced 16-year-old named Travis. The 43-year-old's face is leathery, and his mullet and carefully trimmed reddish beard are soaked with sweat. He's slightly hunched forward, and his sinewy arms and battered fingers dangle like tendrils from a strangler fig.
"You know, Dr. Death, you've been around for eight centuries, and I can respect that, but I'm younger and smarter than you," the heavy-set kid boasts, his face twisting into a sneer. "I'm not impressed. I have no problem putting my foot up your ass. You are looking into the eyes of the future. It looks good, doesn't it?"
The boy ends his diatribe and looks a bit sheepish. The 30-or-so people surrounding him clap vigorously. Most have already given Dr. Death the what-for, and each tried to top the previous in swagger and hyperbole. In the pro wrestling world, this is the "promo," those brief filmed spots where threats are made, vengeance is promised, and prowess is touted. It's hard to tell exactly what Dr. Death is thinking as each of these young turks takes a shot trash-talkin' him. He's got his game face on, the same one he wore as a football lineman with the University of Oklahoma. After graduating, he hung up his jersey and his real name, Steve Williams, keeping instead his gridiron nickname that he's now wrestled under for 21 years.
Given his experience, it's safe to assume that his profuse perspiration doesn't spring from fear. Rather, the ring is tucked into a batcave of a cinderblock-wall warehouse space just off Pembroke Road in Hollywood. The sweltering heat of a September evening and a glut of sweaty bodies have turned the Four Star Wrestling Academy into a sauna.
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The school is now the premier independent pro wrestling outfit in South Florida. Other wrestling companies in the state have withered and died, but Four Star has been slowly and steadily growing. "At one time, it was all ex-football players and big burly guys in pro wrestling," says veteran Rusty Brooks, at 45 a wrestling elder statesman whose jolly personality often sets the tone in the school. "Now, the way the business has evolved, all kinds of people get in there."
Because many of the students don't possess those mind-blowing physiques, the school emphasizes the wrestling basics that were the linchpin of the business a generation ago. The school has become home to a cadre of retired and working professionals who offer their wisdom and body slams to the young blades. Parent company Four Star Championship Wrestling sponsors matches in Broward County and is now expanding its live shows to Palm Beach County, with plans to tackle Miami-Dade.
Dr. Death is at the school for this one-evening seminar to bestow a journeyman's experience to advanced students and a taste of blood (likely their own) to beginners and the plain curious. But first, he needs to do some winnowing. Dr. Death splits the group into those with experience (who number eight) and the rest. The latter he leads to an open tarmac road and instructs them to run "jingle-jangles," which are football training sprints of a kind that will eventually defeat any mortal -- athlete or not. "I'll find out what you've got right here," Dr. Death croaks in a voice that sounds like he flosses his throat with barbed wire. A tiny remnant of tone remains in his vocal cords, like the whining of an antique John Deere tractor. The rest is a scratchy hiss. No one asks him to speak up.
He then turns his attention to the serious students.
"All right, hit the ropes for me," he rasps. He whistles through his fingers to demonstrate when the exercise will end. "I don't want to be screaming at you. I don't want to lose my voice," he says without irony. The six men and two women take turns bounding across the blue padded mat, crashing backward into the three ropes, and flying back upright. The real fun starts when they pair off and start hitting each other. The proper way to hit the mat, or "take a bump," is to throw your legs out, lie prone in the air about waist high, and plummet straight down to the mat for a landing on your back. It's a theatrical landing and not one you can cheat on by breaking the fall with a leg or arm. "I wanna hear a flat 'plop!'" he instructs.
Dr. Death seems genuinely entertained as Matthew Blevins, a massive young man from North Carolina, comes off the ropes and lands fully atop a prone Rich Criado, who had bragged in his earlier promo of being the "perfect creation." Blevins plops on this model of humanity with a crash so thunderous and so unified that even a few of the jingle-janglers outside take notice over their gasping lungs.
"How much you weigh?" Dr. Death asks Blevins.
"About 375," says Blevins, who's wearing a jersey with the logo Big Daddy Clothing Co.
"That was ballet," Dr. Death coos.
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?
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.
None of the students look like they're loving him this evening, however, as he preaches the need for pacing and, basically, taking a bow after pulling off a great move. "Bring the crowd into it," he cajoles. "If the crowd isn't with you, they get bored. You guys wanna do an exhibition instead of show. The hardest thing to learn in this business is showmanship."
Smiley puts in his two cents, and Brooks picks it up again: "The cardinal rule is, if you fuck up a spot, don't go right back in and try to run it again. The audience is going to know that you went back to the same one you fucked up on."
"Sending out the clear message that wrestling is not real," Smiley interjects.
Brooks agrees. "You want to avoid the f word." He means fake, not fuck, which is used unsparingly by his grunting menacing charges.
Since the subject has come up, yes, pro wrestling is fake. Everybody knows it. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of pain involved, though. As Pablo Pabon, an 18-year-old student from Wilton Manors, puts it: "People say this is fake. Well, I say, I'll pay for your first week's lessons, and I'll bet double or nothin' you'll quit before a week is over."
"The misconception," Brooks asserts, "is when people look at this and say, 'I can do that.' You'd be surprised how many people we get here, and two days later they don't come back. It's not as easy as it looks. Anyone who's done this 10 or 15 years has back and neck problems."
Still, no Las Vegas oddsmaker is ever going to waste his time with matches between the likes of A-Train and Undertaker. Years ago, promoters skirted the issue of authenticity, but the wrestling business has embraced campiness and gone postmodern. It's a show within a show, The Larry Sanders Show with arm twists and turnbuckle crunches. One wrestler describes the fights as "physical drama," what with the struggle between good and evil, ongoing feuds, and midmatch reversals of fortune.
Choreography is everything. Every action needs to make sense; it needs to produce the most entertainment for the crowd with the least harm to you and your opponent. There's got be a reason for every spot, a discipline the school's instructors refer to as "psychology." If you don't have psychology, you'll never "get over," the slang for becoming a marketable professional.
"If you do nine, ten highspots flying off the ropes every night of the week, you'll have a two- or three-year career, because your body will be so banged up, you're not going to be able to go," co-owner Magnum lectured the advanced students one night. Magnum comes off as a bit menacing, what with an indented shaven skull, as though it once took a helluva whack. "There are guys who've been around 25, 30 years. How did they get there? They were solid. They do the basics. They don't try to do too many fancy things.There's an old saying that less is more."
Magnum's advice? Use your mouth. It'll save a lot of wear and tear on limbs and muscles. "When I'm in the ring, I do a lot of solid mat wrestling. I don't think I've ever had a match that the crowd hasn't enjoyed. I may do five or six offensive moves in the match, but I move my mouth."
In fact, the jaw muscle is among the most essential in pro wrestling.
When Dr. Death finishes with the advanced students, he turns them over to Andy Vineberg, an agent with Major League Wrestling, which is based in Baltimore. The company will present the so-called "War Games" wrestling matches the next night at the Fort Lauderdale War Memorial Auditorium. Dr. Death is scheduled for that, hence his sojourn from home state Louisiana to South Florida.
"I'm here to work with you guys so you can make better promos," Vineberg says. "The Rock. Stone Cold Steve Austin. Hulk Hogan. All those guys are great talkers."
Promos aren't easy, and they can make or break pro hopefuls. They're all ad-lib, and voices must be choked with an overweening vengeful rage. Oh, and humor is a plus.
"Know what really thins my latte?" begins one student, playing a rich spoiled guy who has just lost his championship belt. "When a man steps into my high society and steals my gold. You stole my gold! That does not happen here. I want a rematch. That man is an impostor, and I am Preston James III, and I want my gold."
The group likes his latte crack, but someone warns him, "Ya know, you can only use it once, man."
He takes another stab at it. "Know what really takes the bubbles out of my champagne? When a man comes into my ring and steals my gold. He's an impostor. He may have won the gold tonight, but I hold the power. I should hold the gold. I am the future of this company. If he thinks he can come in here and take my title, that's not going to happen. Not on my watch, not on my Rolex watch."
Next up is Ryan O'Riley (his real last name is Parmeter), a 23-year-old rising star who's developing an Irish gimmick. Vineberg holds a mic in front of him and directs him to trash-talk fellow student J-Dog.
O'Riley spins a 360. "Holy shiverin' shamrock!" he yelps. "J-Dog, you took something pretty precious from me, something I worked damn hard to get. You know something? Rules were made to be broken, just like bones. I think about you, J-Dog, and I think about a shooting star" -- he hisses out the words as he slashes in an arc -- "a falling one, actually. You're like a bomb, but some bombs are duds. Well, tonight, J-Dog, you will feel the infliction of Ryan O'Riley's addiction." He cackles. "I don't know where the hell that came from," he confesses afterward.
After they've all finished, Vineberg says, "The basics are what'll get you guys over. The psychology and the selling is what's going to get you guys over. Not your character. Not you putting a tape in to show your friends: 'Hey, I wrestled so-and-so.' They think it's cool, but so what? It doesn't mean anything."
Getting over is rare.
"Over the years, we've trained hundreds of guys," Brooks explained one evening between shouted direction to the grapplers in the ring. "If you train 100 guys, 10 make it. And I don't mean the big shows. I mean, out of 100, maybe one or two make it all the way because it's such a tough life when you start traveling. It's hard to gain entrance in this business."
Brooks trained under "The Great" Boris Malenko, one of the big names in professional wrestling in the '50s and '60s. Brooks' career began 20 years ago, when pro wrestling was still divided into territories. Florida was one, a couple in Georgia, four in Texas, and so on. "You could wrestle five, six times a week and make a pretty good living. Now, the only way you can make a good living is to get into the [World Wrestling Federation] or if you're down in Puerto Rico. If you're very popular in the independent circuit, you can pick up enough bookings to make a living. But for a young guy breaking in, it's really tough. There just aren't enough places to go."
Of course, not everyone wants the same thing out of wrestling school. Some want it as a career, some are curious, and some just consider it a hobby, like softball, Brooks says. "This is kind of like... you could almost call this a dream factory in that regard," he says.
The dreamers are getting younger.
Laura Brown, a twig of a 16-year-old from Royal Palm Beach, attended Dr. Death's seminar with her 19-year-old uncle, himself a pro wrestler. She shows up a week later for some beginning lessons with Magnum.
Her friends think she's crazy. "They like watching wrestling, but they say they'd never do it," she says. "I mean, they think it's fake." She earned some respect from them when she showed off her bruises from the Dr. Death seminar. "I'm willing to do anything for this business," she says.
A short time later, she gets the chance to do the most basic of things in the biz as Magnum spends about a half hour drilling her on taking solo bumps. Over and over, she takes a few steps, then tosses her legs up and lands on her back. She's tense. She wants to get it right.
Gonzo tells her, "You have a mental block about the mat. You're afraid of the mat. It's soft enough. It's all right."
Then finally, she bangs the back of her head on the mat hard enough that she remains still, fighting back the pain and, it appears, tears. She's had enough for the night and quietly rolls under the ropes and hops to the concrete floor.
Every fledgling pro wrestler suffers.
Scott Papper started training in December 2002 at a now-defunct school in Plantation, then signed up with Magnum and the gang in June after a friend mentioned the school.
"It was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be," the 19-year-old recalls. "I picked up everything pretty quick, but the first week or so, man, I was in the most pain of my life. From landing wrong, my back would kill me, especially my neck. I couldn't turn my head without being in severe pain. Also, from running the ropes, I'd have welts across my back. It was rough, but as you progress, you get a lot stronger. You learn the least painful way to fall. It builds up your neck muscles too, so it's a combination of everything."
Papper, whose nom de guerre is Scott Commodity (hot commodity, get it?), is tall and slim with a fully shaven head. He's intense in the ring, not given to bombast, and he moves with the precision of a well-trained athlete -- which he's not.
"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."
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.
No one, of course, can predict who'll make it to the big time. For the most part, you have to make it to the World Wrestling Federation to make a real living at this. "There's 50,000 wrestlers and maybe 75 to 100 jobs open," Brooks says. "So it makes it tough. For every Rock and Hulk Hogan, there's 15,000 guys who have two jobs and call in sick to make it to that Saturday-night booking."
Smiley has a simple equation for who'll get over: "First, who's the hungriest? Two, who's willing to sacrifice the most? And third, and most important, who gets the breaks?"
The guy most eager for that break now is Ryan O'Riley, whose last evaluation declares, "Looks like the 'light' finally came on!!!"
"Ryan's the guy I would say could be the next local guy down here who could make it," Brooks says. "He has talent and skill. Again, it's just the matter of the right person seeing him and getting the break."
O'Riley does seem to have the right blend of looks, ego, and glib tongue to make it big. But he never expected it would be in this business. "If you would have asked me four years ago if I'd ever be interested in wrestling, I'd have said go screw yourself," he admits.
During one recent evening at the school, O'Riley loitered outside after someone inadvertently tracked dog shit into the ring. As the cleanup proceeded, O'Riley talked about his recent leap forward in wrestling. He's 6-foot-6 and possesses muscles of Lego-block definition. His strong jutting nose is as assertive as his grappling. On his upper-left arm is a tattoo of a nasty-looking leprechaun -- his ugly alter ego.
"For a long while, it was just the same matches, in and out," he recalls. "I wanted to do stuff for myself. I wanted to make myself look good, as opposed to getting the match to look good." He'd been trying to learn psychology in the ring for about a year and a half but just couldn't get it. Then, very decisively this summer, he changed his tack the day before a match. "I told myself, 'Let's go out there and learn how to entertain. Let's have fun for a change instead of trying to remember everything. Go out there and mess with someone. Piss 'em off.'
"I swear to you, I went there the next day, my match went on, and the first thing I did was look right back at someone in the audience and told them to shut their stupid face. And let me tell you something, that gesture had that whole place just saying: You suck. We can't stand you."
O'Riley had been a star tight end on the Coconut Creek High School football team, but he says the success went to his head. Colleges courted him, but ultimately a dismal cumulative grade point average left him unfit for anything but a local community college after graduating in 1999. With a formidable physique, he became a nightclub bouncer.
A few of his weightlifting buddies talked him into attending a pro wrestling show at the National Car Rental Center that starred the Rock and Triple H. "There was a lady sitting in front of me," he recalls. "She was in her 30s, sitting there alone. She's yelling, 'Oh, I love the Rock. We love you!'
"I thought, wow, this is incredible. One man can just walk down to the ring, make his presence known, and the crowd chants, 'Rocky, Rocky, Rocky.' Then something happened where the Rock was hurt at the end of the match and she started crying. I'm not kidding -- she was in tears.
"And we know it's a work," O'Riley admits. "It's a business, know what I'm saying? But Rock was bleeding. And Triple H is standing over him, doing his poses, and this lady is crying, absolute tears. I'm thinking, 'Wow, these guys have the power to control these people's feelings. That is unbelievable.'"
He attended a local wrestling show in Oakland Park and chatted up some of the pros. Someone gave him Rusty Brooks' name and number. At the time, Brooks ran the school in his backyard. "When I was there, I basically beat myself up," O'Riley says. "I started hitting the ropes, and my ribs were practically bruised. I had these bruise marks going across my back that stuck out. I twisted my ankle. I think within the first six months, I got kicked in the face, and it split open." He's trained hard, primarily under the tutelage of Soulman Alex G., another veteran pro who hangs out at the school because it's in his blood.
O'Riley describes his first professional match as "the screamin' shits" because he immediately smacked heads and his eyes watered up. Then he and his opponent forgot what spots they'd planned.
He toyed with a few character gimmicks, such as Road Kill, where he envisioned tire tracks across his shirt and playing possum. The Irish shtick seemed to work best. He goads the audience by yelling, "Suck my shillelagh!" and taunts the women that "I'm magically delicious."
"I come out with a shamrock on my crotch now, shamrock kneepads," he says. "I have a fashion-designer friend who wants to make me a jacket that has tails that curl, basically like it does on this." He points to the leprechaun on his arm.
A short while later, he's involved in a four-person tag-team match. O'Riley is outside the ring, leaning into the ropes. When the ad hoc ref, a student, becomes "distracted," O'Riley illicitly joins his partner in pummeling their opponent. The overpowered wrestler vainly tries to get the ref's attention, as does his partner. O'Riley gazes across the ring, bares his teeth, and hisses, "You sit down and shut up!"
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