On the Hunt for the Sheik — South Florida's Most Feared Wrestler

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.

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Deirdra Funcheon