Dreams of WWE Stardom Motivate Broward Wrestler Ernest Valdes

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The $15 they earned for the night is "not a lot, but it's better than nothing, and we need to get to WXW," Valdes yells over the sound system, which is blasting group favorite Dane Cook, cranked to 11. "That company is legit. It's a 100 percent bona fide maker in this business."

Three-year-old Ernie Valdes was taking a bath when the door frame filled with the shadow of an imposing figure. Before he knew what hit him, flashes of hot pain were all over his tiny, soap-lathered body. His father, yet again, was piss-drunk and looking for someone to beat up. The future acrobat dashed out of the tub and toward his mother, Mercedes, who was folding laundry on the other side of their Fort Lauderdale duplex.

"Help me, Mami, help me!" the little boy remembers wailing before slipping on the square white tile and sliding all the way to the end of a 20-foot hallway. He hit the wall so hard that it left a dent.

Mercedes, a long-faced woman from outside Havana, married her husband when she was only 15. The young couple fled to Trenton, New Jersey, from Cuba and eventually settled in South Florida around 1988. "My dad was a hustler," explains Valdes. "Whatever you needed, he could get." And while that mostly meant procuring and hocking jewelry with an Uncle Ernesto, it also meant getting loaded with seedy characters and coming home angry. Although he was merciless with Mercedes, the bearded hustler laid his hands on young Valdes exactly once.

That July night, after the drunk dad had passed out, Mercedes packed up Valdes and his 11-year-old brother, Ralphy, and headed for a nearby shelter home. They stayed there for about eight months, bouncing around to impermanent homes in Hialeah, South Miami, and eventually Pembroke Pines.

Valdes' second memory was also terrifying: It's when King Kong Bundy faced off against Hulk Hogan in Saturday Night's Main Event. The 3-year-old was chasing a cousin down a long hallway when he veered off into another family member's bedroom. There sat all the older cousins crowded around a tiny television. He stopped dead in his tracks.

He would steal his mom's collection of old coins and affix them to Scotch tape to make wrestling belts.

The match had just ended, and the beer-guzzling Andre the Giant came up to Hogan from behind, placing his hands on his shoulders and choking him. Valdes remembers shaking at the sight of the seven-foot-four monster.

But four years later, his horror turned to fascination. He would steal his mom's collection of old coins and affix them to Scotch tape to make wrestling belts. He was so skinny, it would take only a handful of lined-up chips to wrap around his sunken waist.

Older brother Ralphy would use him as a punching bag, practicing the body slams and bumps he saw on TV. Ernest didn't mind. In fact, he grew to love it and thought of the world as his stage.

"When he was little, he would just call out people's heights and weights rather than calling them by name," his mother, now 51, explains between puffs of a Newport at her dining room table. She shares this modest apartment with her Peruvian husband, Carlos; Ernie and his fiancée; and Mercedes' 17-year-old autistic son, David, who sleeps in the living room. "So when he says he's been a wrestler for ten years, that's a lie. He's been a wrestler all of his life."

While wrestling was an interest growing up, singing was his passion. Peers at his middle school and his mom's second beau, a former Latin King, would call him "faggot" for idolizing artists like Justin Timberlake.

"My mother dated a lot of heels," says Valdes. "It wasn't the prettiest story." The picked-on kid finally caught a break when a 19-year-old, Anjel Heredia, invited him to join a boy band called Entity. In the summer before he and the band started high school, Valdes traveled to Key West to perform on MTV's now-defunct show Say What: Karaoke. He lied to the producers to get on-air, saying he was 16 even though he was only 14 at the time.

It was the time of Valdes' life: He met 'NSync crooner Lance Bass and peeped rapper Xzibit smoking a poolside blunt. "From that point on, I was hooked on show business," he says. And although the band performed Backstreet Boys' "Everybody" as a twosome that day and didn't win, they later recruited three other guys and tried to forge a record deal at the height of the Backstreet Boys' fame. Although he was the youngest and smallest member of the group, Valdes quickly asserted himself as the leader.

"When you put him onstage, he just takes over," Heredia says. "But his ego was getting ahead of him, and he wanted it to be all about him. He would say, 'Give me more parts. I'm who people are here to see.'"

Ultimately, Heredia says, the guys squabbled over members of a local girl group. They couldn't reconcile even when they were on the cusp of a deal with Elektra Records, arguing over stipulations of their proposed contract.

Executives wanted them to go to Europe and wear tight, leather leopard-print outfits. Amid the infighting, a member named Richard Lugo persuaded the execs to let him go as a solo act, and Valdes didn't get in on the deal. (The Dominican opened for acts like 'NSync and was touted as the next Ricky Martin, although he had only one, noncharting single in the U.S.)

After trying briefly to perform alone under the moniker Casanova, Valdes set his sights on another booming industry based out of Orlando: professional wrestling. His friend Juan Velez had built a backyard rig at an abandoned radio station near his mom's home in Hialeah Gardens. He set up used mattresses as the padded floor, shopping carts as turnstiles, and garden hoses as ropes. Ernie started showing up and calling himself Lil E. "We thought because he was so small that he'd be one of the guys who'd show up once and never come back," Velez remembers. "But he ended up taking it much more seriously than most of us."

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.