On a Friday night in February — Friday the 13th, to be exact — a dozen jacked-up wrestlers gather inside the weight room at a bare-bones community center in Davie. The space doubles as a backstage dressing room. Fluorescent lights flicker down on the men. With raw, bulging muscles, they unzip their rolling suitcases and unpack spandex and combat boots.
The event is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. At 7:50, Joey Machete bursts through the metal door. He's a 5-foot-10, 245-pound powerhouse in a torn-up black T-shirt. He has one defining physical characteristic: a set of mesmerizing, cat-like hazel eyes.
I watch 34-year-old Machete motion for his cohorts to gather in the center of the room. Suitcases snap shut. Barbells fall. Spandex drops to the floor. The wrestlers can tell their leader is upset.
"How many people are out there?" ventures one wrestler.
"Eleven," Machete gasps.
"And none of them paid!" someone adds, followed by a laugh. Admission is only ten bucks — five for kids under 13.
"I'm embarrassed," says Machete.
Machete has been working for a year to build up his indie wrestling league, called Pro Wrestling Fusion. Just like in the movie The Wrestler, he and his peers spend weekend after weekend causing mayhem in unglamorous high school gymnasiums and industrial warehouses all over the state — and sometimes the world.
The venues may be a far cry from the bright lights and packed arenas of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), but the personalities involved are just as gigantic. In fact, indie wrestling often beats the big league at its own game, precisely because it's not crassly commercialized. Amid bare walls and low budgets, the real world more easily gives way to an alternate universe where good and evil are clearly defined — although good triumphs only some of the time.
But the wrestling industry, no matter how fantastical, still requires cold, hard cash to stay afloat, even at the minor-league level. For Machete, last week was awesome. Almost 450 people packed one of his shows in Fort Pierce. But this? This is ridiculous.
The low turnout is blamed on a promoter who Machete says dropped the ball. One wrestler cuts that guy slack, pointing out that it's hard to compete for anybody's entertainment dollar these days when people have TiVo and Xboxes at home. And they say wrestling's not real.
Machete announces that because of the low head count, the scene's big star — big villain, I should say — has refused to show up. The Sheik will wait to wreak havoc another day. The other wrestlers seem relieved.
Regardless, the show must go on. Machete shifts to a pep talk. "All right, guys," he says in a coach's motivational tone. "Go out there, do whatever you want to do. Don't get hurt, and don't do nothing dumb."
Most important, he adds, "have fun."
Practicing a few moves before going onstage, Johnny Allnight, a wrestler with wristbands and long, frizzy hair, folds his arms and do-si-dos around a yellow-caped man who goes by Fantastic Dantastic. Nearby, another guy squeezes into a shiny purple unitard.
"It's not a unitard," Joey Machete corrects me. "It's a singlet."
King Kong Fu slips on his gorilla mask. Fu is Machete's close friend and former tag-team partner. Real name: Shawn Ambrosino.
Ambrosino explains his character this way: "He's basically a disco-dancing funky monkey who jive-talks. He's a sexy simian from the 1970s." Although Ambrosino lives in Boynton Beach, his character hails from Funkytown USA. Fu harbors a bit of an Asian flair: He wears a pair of satin orange boxing trunks with Thai script.
Fu's biggest dream is to have a pimped-out 1970s van with shag carpet from floor to ceiling. And a waterbed. And a blacklight. And a disco ball. And Saturday Night Fever on the eight-track. Not to mention a couple of foxy mamas. His only downfall, his Kryptonite if you will, is a paralyzing fear of midgets.
Ambrosino spent about ten years making a living as a wrestler, but he is happy to have recently developed another skill set. Weekdays, he works as a copywriter at a marketing firm. "And I recently discovered I have a talent for writing poetry," he says in all seriousness.
Nearby, Amy Vitale — that's both her real name and her stage name — describes herself as a spoiled Italian-American princess from Boca Raton. She's sort of a female Mafioso who bares her midriff. "She uses all her powers," Vitale explains, "beauty, brains, and cunning." Vitale's obsession with Randy "Macho Man" Savage led her to join the wrestling scene in the '80s. By now, "all these guys are like my brothers," she says. "Except for King Kong Fu — he's smitten with me." Fu winks at her.
Although humor is part of the allure for some of the wrestlers in the scene, others take their jobs quite seriously.
Take Homicide, for instance. His tattoos indicate he was a member of the notorious Latin Kings street gang. One day, he explains, "I had a kid and woke up. I realized I was going to end up either locked up or dead." So he turned to his childhood dream and developed a full-time wrestling career complete with regular television gigs. He perfected some wrestling moves, including his signature "Gringo Cutter" — grabbing his opponent by the neck and driving him to the mat face-first. He's now an executive producer for the Total Nonstop Action (TNA) franchise, which airs matches on the Spike TV network.
Although some wrestlers still see the WWE as the pinnacle of the sport, Homicide says the league has grown so massive that getting in requires "too much political B.S." To have a shot, he explains: "Nowadays, you have to be the perfect height and weight and good-looking, like a model." Homicide, by contrast, is so real he doesn't even dress up. He wears a do-rag and camouflage shorts. "Oh, I got spandex under there for a little protection," he laughs. "I think it's sexy! Plus, you gotta tuck the nuts."
The current Fusion heavyweight champion doesn't need much in the way of costumes either. Clean-cut, all-American Steve Madison rips off his shirt and admires his perfectly toned pecs in the mirror.
Without taking his eyes off himself, Madison says he sticks to a strict diet and works out two to three hours a day. "Sometimes I eat at Wendy's," he admits. "But I have willpower — I order the grilled chicken and a side salad." Displaying a rare crack in his boy-next-door demeanor, he complains, "I don't like it when other people eat mayonnaise. There's no nutritional value! There's no reason to eat mayonnaise! That really riles me up!" And yes, if his opponents showed up for matches smeared with mayonnaise, they would probably beat him.
I ask Madison how he got the idea for his character, but he dismisses the question. "I don't have to act," he offers. "It's just how I am in real life. Really what drives me is the athleticism of the sport." The only thing fake is his last name — because his real one, Favata, is hard to remember. Other than that, he declares, "No gimmicks needed."
The non-schtick has made Madison a fairly accomplished international star. Last May, he returned from Japan, where he could clear $1,500 in a good week. He came back to Tampa, where he now takes college classes in economics and accounting. "I'm a thinker," he says. In the States, at a big match, Madison says, popular wrestlers can make $500 to $1,000 for ten minutes in the ring. At smaller shows like tonight's, though, it's more like $75.
There's one other guy in the scene who's infamous for taking himself too seriously: the Sheik.
Unlike his peers, the Sheik shuns camaraderie and comedy both. He is always seen in a black singlet with a camel on the front, a pair of chunky red boots that curl at the toe, and a violent scowl. Other wrestlers have never even heard him speak — his "manager," Barabas, a bald dude in a blazer, communicates for him. The story is that he's from Iran. But other than that, the other wrestlers tell me they don't know much about the Sheik's life outside of the ring. Even in downtime, he is often seen wearing his headdress and sharpening a spike — actually an eight-inch-long gutter nail. It freaks people out.
Whereas other wrestlers employ ridiculous maneuvers, incorporating handsprings and cartwheels into their routines, the Sheik is just plain violent. He hides the spike in his boot and brings it into the ring when he fights. His matches often end in real bloodbaths. Last month, he and Steve Madison beat the hell out of each other with an iron chain in a cage match.
Some wrestlers worry that the Sheik is going to hurt people — really hurt them. They wonder if he's mentally stable enough to be in the league. Send him over to ultimate fighting, some guys have begged Machete in private. But Machete can't kick him out — the Sheik had a "no disqualification" clause written into his multiyear contract.
"You don't know if the Sheik's going to punch you in the face or gnaw your fingers off," says Ambrosino, AKA King Kong Fu. "That level of unpredictability makes him very dangerous. Most people have a set of rules that they follow or at the very least follow the rules of the ring... But the Sheik has no rules."
Luckily, nothing has gone horribly wrong — so far.
As soon as he has a minute, Joey Machete plops down on the weightlifting bench backstage to tell his story. His hazel eyes flash — it looks like he's wearing colored contacts, but he's not. He's sweating from running around. "Believe it or not," he says, "it's harder to rally a crowd of 500 than an arena of 50,000." And Machete would know.
His love of wrestling goes back to about 1977, when he was 3 years old. He remembers running into the living room, crying. When his eyes caught the TV, his tears stopped immediately. A massive wrestler named Dusty Rhodes — a lumbering dude with a yellow mop top, sort of a bleached-blond Andre the Giant — was destroying some sucker in the ring. After that, Machete says: "Every Monday night, I was at the West Palm Beach Auditorium. If I was sick or something, all the wrestlers would ask about me. I was that much of a fixture."
He got into the sport at the time that regional promotions were becoming overshadowed by the behemoth World Wrestling Federation, which later became the WWE. Though it made the smaller operations pale in comparison, the WWF also gave wrestlers something to aspire to: giant salaries and superstar status. Suddenly, followers of this freaky fringe sport could have careers like rock stars. After high school, Machete began training seriously.
In the late 1990s, he had his first break, opening for a Hulk Hogan show. "I was on a tag team called the Market Cra$her$," Machete says. "I was Na$daq." His partner, King Kong Fu, went by Dow Jone$. The two always entered the ring in dress shirts and ties.
A WWF star named Cousin Luke — part of the hillbilly family of Bushwhackers — liked the duo's style. Luke had business ties in Puerto Rico, where wrestling is something of a national pastime. Luke offered to help the boys break in to wrestling in Puerto Rico. "We were hungry and young," Machete remembers. Before they got on their flight to San Juan, they traded in their business suits for their first pairs of spandex. "Boy, did we look good in them," Machete reminisces. "They breathe nicely."
The two friends were barely into their 20s and making it as pro wrestlers. In Puerto Rico, major television networks aired wrestling for two hours a day on the weekends. The duo became stars on the island. They performed Thursdays through Sundays and filmed TV interviews every Tuesday. "We'd go to the gym in the morning, do our tanning on the beach, and then wrestle at night," Machete remembers. "It felt like we were skipping school or something."
Occasionally, they'd wrestle in so-called "dark matches," on-camera auditions for fresh WWE talent "to see if you've got it or not," Machete explains. He was never called up to the big league, but he didn't mind. Fans made action figures of him. They'd look up his birthday and bring him gifts. He met his wife-to-be, who was vacationing from California, on the beach. "We were just loving life," he says.
It all ended when Machete smashed his knee during practice. Sidelined for a year, he came back to Florida. Ambrosino also dropped out for a while. Over the next ten years, they wrestled on and off, but Machete shifted his focus to behind the scenes. He got married. He opened a construction business and two tanning salons in Fort Pierce, where he now lives. Today, those still provide his income. As Mrs. Machete knows well, any money he makes through wrestling goes back into wrestling.
Last year, Machete returned to his first love and took over Pro Wrestling Fusion, a promotion that had been started by another group of guys in 2004 but lay dormant. It has since become a full-time job. Machete handles everything from advertising to booking to TV appearances. In the past month alone, he has traveled to South Dakota and Los Angeles for events. "I live wrestling 24/7," he says.
Sometimes, he rents space on his own, hires wrestlers, promotes the event himself, and then keeps whatever profit he makes — or eats the losses. Other times — like tonight — he "sells the show." A promoter will pay a flat fee to Machete for organizing everything; Machete then pays wrestlers out of that sum. Then, the risk is on the promoter's back. Machete is loath to talk numbers, but he hints that if a big corporate sponsor pays $5,000 for a show, he can make a few thousand dollars profit.
As head of Fusion, he's the Wizard in his own personal Oz. One of his most important roles is being the booker, or matchmaker, deciding which wrestlers will go toe to toe. "I'll say, 'I need a madman to go against our top good guy.' So I'll call the Sheik — well, since he doesn't talk, I call his manager." Machete shakes his head.
"The first time I met him," says Machete, trying to explain the Sheik's madness, "I was just taken aback by his sheer brutality. He was so hardcore. I thought it was a cool act, but it's been carrying on so long with no crack in the façade at all... I just don't know. He's been in there and thrown fire at people — we don't even know how he did that, how he even got materials into the ring." Machete looks up, his hazel eyes showing a faint sense of alarm. "He actually makes me sort of nervous."
Despite being difficult to work with, the Sheik is beneficial to the bigger picture. "Wrestling is basically a brutal ballet," Machete philosophizes. "It's a male soap opera. It's got drama — when it's done right. Even the WWE, when it's not done professionally, it's retarded. It falls short. People don't get it. But if at the end of a match, everyone's out of their seat and cheering, you know you did a good job."
Making it "sticky" is the key, he says. "I want the whole audience to come back to see the story. Sometime I watch soap operas for ideas.
"Maybe," he muses, breaking into a grin, "the Sheik can fall down, have amnesia, and have Steve Madison's baby."
Taunts from the crowd lure me out into the gymnasium, where a rudimentary P.A. system sits on a folding table. Two huge speakers look puny in the cavernous room. Nothing brings families and strangers together quite like the communal joy of chanting, "You suck! You suck! You suck!"
A dinky tabletop strobe light tries mightily to cast its colored light upon the action, but its rays don't even reach the wrestling ring in the middle of the floor. People dot the bleachers that jut out from one wall. I take a seat next to some elementary-school-aged kids.
An 11-year-old named Tylor Damelio explains the rules: "Everybody slams each other. They hit each other in the face. They jump on the rope and hit themselves, and whoever pins everybody wins."
Daron Smythe — a professional lifeguard and P.E. teacher by day — struts out from backstage in a purple and silver outfit, complete with shiny cape. Ominous music pumps through the speakers. "Boooooo!" the crowd taunts. "You suck! You suck!"
A little girl in a nightgown with a mop of curly hair — she can't be more than 4 years old — runs up to the wrestler, who's ten times her size. Summoning all of her bravery, she puffs out her chest and calls him names. Her father eggs her on. The wrestler hisses at her, and she scampers away.
Smythe slips into the ring and climbs on the top rope. "I want each and every one of you to sit down and shut up!" he bellows. No matter that everyone is already pretty much sitting and shutting.
Jacqueline Miller, a 10-year-old sitting next to me, rips into Daron over his purple outfit: "You're a big rotten grape!" she says.
"And the crowd goes wild...," says the announcer.
"What crowd?" shouts a grandma in the bleachers, slapping her knee.
Actually, the room starts to fill up. People mill in and sift through boxes of vintage, bootleg wrestling videos that are offered for sale — with titles like Blood on the Sand and King of the Ring '96. Teenagers fill in the ringside seats. A line forms at the concession stand, where $2.25 buys a hot dog and a Coke.
A girl of about 12 years old takes a deep breath and yells as loud as she can at the wrestler: "Are you chicken? Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk!"
Ignoring the taunt, Smythe gets up on a pole and leaps, his knees lifted up near his ears as he comes down on his opponent.
"That's a frog splash," young Jacqueline tells me.
Soon, the action in the ring turns into a blur of radical maneuvers with radical names: The Corkscrew Shooting-Star Press. The Mushroom Stomp. The Reverse Frankensteiner. Brainbusters, Backbreakers, and Facebusters. Moonsaults.
Breathless wrestlers take turns climbing on the rope and attacking one another. They flip each other upside down. They make fantastical noises as they bang one another's heads into the mat. They bend one another's legs back until they eke out cries for mercy.
And so it goes. Smythe beats Korey Chavis. Johnny Allnight beats Fantastic Dantastic. King Kong Fu beats CJ Doyle using a Monkey Flip, a Corner Sexy Party, and a clothesline-type move called a Ghetto Blaster. Doyle tells me it's called a Ghetto Blaster "because the excrement blasts out of the opponent's body when it hits."
But without the Sheik and his over-the-top evilness, something seems amiss. For the title match, when good guy Steve Madison takes the stage in his simple red pants and faces Homicide in his NWA T-shirt and a pair of baggy shorts, the crowd doesn't know who to root for at first.
"Who's that guy?" Tylor asks his cousin, 8-year-old Marshall Miller.
"I don't know, but I think I like him," Marshall says. Then he realizes, "That's Latin Kings — that's Homicide! From TNA!"
They decide to side with Madison, calling Homicide a "ballgazer" and yelling, "You need to wear those shorts to the beach — maybe get some tans!"
By the time Madison takes Homicide out with an Axe Bomber, I am fired up. But before the crowd trickles out of the gym, another 8-year-old delivers a major buzzkill.
Hector, a boy from Davie, points out that the wrestler doing the body-slamming will surreptitiously place his hand behind his opponent's head to cushion the blow when he hits the floor. Hector isn't impressed: "My dad does that to me all the time."
Hector looks me dead in the eye and declares, "It's not real. It's fake."
"Nuh-uh," I gasp.
When the victorious Madison saunters backstage, sweat glistens on his hair-free chest.
That was a relatively normal fight. No doubt Madison would be even more exhausted if the Sheik had shown up. The two have spent the past year as nasty enemies, in combat over the title belt. Each man seems to have met his match; neither one sees much distinction between real life and fiction.
"For a year, I've been wrestling the Sheik," Madison says. "That guy is a mountain man. He puts people through tables. He's crazy."
I ask how much of the Sheik is an act.
"No one knows."
Then I say goodbye to King Kong Fu. He doles out a big gorilla hug and passes me a note. I unfold it, looking down to read as I walk out the door to the parking lot. It is one of his poems. It begins:
Bodies, glow and glisten and fall
Bodies, stand and cheer and yell
What does a star see
as it flies through the heavens
I find Joey Machete to say goodbye.
"How was the take?" I ask.
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"Decent," he says. He earned several hundred dollars, and the wrestlers all got paid $25 to $500. Next up, Machete hopes to run events at the Davie Police Athletic League community center the second Friday of every month and in Fort Pierce once a month.
I ask Machete if I can have the Sheik's phone number. Maybe his manager can translate. Machete says he'll see if he can arrange it.
Over the next days and weeks, I try calling and calling the Sheik. But the phone just rings and rings. I never do get to meet him. But if I had to hazard a guess, I'd bet his eyes are hazel.
Photos by C. Stiles.