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.
"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.