Recognizing his talent and stage presence, a friend suggested he enroll in wrestling school at Body Slam University in Pompano Beach. Alex Gibson, the trainer, noticed "he only has to be taught something once." Gibson told him he had something special. After that compliment, the 18-year-old was hooked, forking over a $300 deposit and agreeing to pay $50 a month, which he would do for the next two-and-a-half years.
It helped that he had a look and understood how to work a crowd from his boy-band days. Valdes changed his name from Lil E to ERA and invented a host of other hyperbolic nicknames, such as "The Undisputed Pinnacle of Homosapien Achievement."
But while that name might not suggest it, Valdes was born slighted. There are two royal families in wrestling: the Samoans and the Harts. Their sons go on to become wrestlers, and their daughters go on to marry them. Over the course of three generations, such dynasties have come to dominate the industry.
In contrast, Ernie's singular brush with greatness came from working for his mom's paramedical company, which takes body-fluid samples for insurance companies. He still gushes over the time he got to hold a vial of Chris Bosh's urine in his hand: "I thought for a crazy second, if I drank it, would I get some of his greatness?"
Only about 20 percent of the talent on the WWE's current roster of 54 got there by doing what Valdes does: putting in an extraordinary amount of time in civic centers and VFW halls, sleeping in cars, subsisting on toxic amounts of fast food, and frequently ending up in the hole after a weekend of thankless and painful work.
There's no clear path to the WWE, explains David Shoemaker, author of The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. "You work your way up from smaller shows to bigger regional shows and try to get on people's radar," he says. "At the end of the day, the wrestling world is not that big. If you're working some tiny show with 50 people and the promoters pay $500 to get a big-name former star there, he can see you wrestle and tell people who matter to go check you out."
Chris Spradlin, one of the best-known independent wrestlers in the world, had a developmental contract with the WWE for 21 months. The 34-year-old -- better-known as Chris Hero -- trained in Ohio, Japan, Atlanta, and Ocala before making a name for himself. He was wrestling in Ring of Honor -- widely regarded as the third-best pro league in the country -- when he got a call from a WWE road agent.
He says that the industry is very tight and that tryouts are typically awarded to people through word of mouth.
"[WWE trainers] would ask us to name five guys we'd worked with in the past who we thought deserved a tryout," he explains. "If you have a good rapport with a certain trainer, then you have enough equity built up so that people trust your opinion."
Wrestling promoters determine who wins championship belts based on crowd reaction. Entertainers who get the crowds riled up are the biggest draws, so businessmen showcase them to boost ticket sales.
So far, Valdes has become the champion at six of the state's independent promotions. His next goal is to hold a title belt at one of the country's professional leagues. There are about 50 in the United States, including two for women, one for Juggalos, and another for Christian wrestlers. As a matter of convenience, he has his sights set on WXW in Minneola. He hopes that league will catapult him to the holy grail: the WWE.
And even if someone does make it to the WWE and gets a developmental contract, he or she might make only $250 to $750 a week, several wrestlers report. Then they have to fight for airtime on NXT, a televised farm team. From there, maybe 10 percent of them will make it onto the WWE roster.
Still, even if they become one of the 50 or so top wrestlers in the world, only the fan favorites appear on Raw and Wrestlemania, tour arenas around the country, and make millions selling merchandise like toy figurines and T-shirts.
"It's like the old saying about writing a book," says Shoemaker, the author. "Out of every million people who say they want to write a book, only one starts. And out of every million people who start, only one finishes. It's one thing to get signed but a totally different thing to become John Cena."
When Alex Gibson first started training in the 1980s, that meant driving to Tampa every weekend and returning home to his mother with black eyes and bruised ribs. Back then, kayfabe -- the practice of making the drama seem real -- was strictly enforced.
Although he was an accomplished grappler at North Miami High School, Gibson would get positively pummeled in every match with the pro wrestlers who traveled the regional circuit back then. It was only after six months that he was told about the initiation process and realized he was undergoing a form of hazing as a "greenback."
"They wanted to make sure this is really what you wanted to be doing," he says. "They wanted to know you had what it took." He's sitting in his office at the Spot Training Center in Hollywood, where he now coaches Ernest Valdes.
After he'd proved himself as a willing punching bag, Gibson, who is now 51, was asked to take a vow of silence and never reveal the scripted nature of wrestling to anyone. "I couldn't tell my girlfriend or my mom," he remembers.
Upon signing a nondisclosure agreement, he became "Soulman Alex G." and entered a world in which he was required to act 24 hours a day. His new job in wrestling meant he had to keep secrets from those closest to him and could hang out only with the peers who played good guys. "Baby faces and heels couldn't run together. You couldn't ride out to a Burger King with someone you were supposed to have a rivalry with. We had to make it seem like we really hated each other."