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.

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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson