July 31August 7, 1997
Alliance of the Slams
Philadelphia's newest entry into the insanely popular world of professional wrestling appeals to whites, blacks and Latinos. So who cares if it's "real"?
By Frank Lewis
Sunday afternoon at North Philly's Felton SupperClub. Isaias Aviles, impeccably dressed, microphone in one hand and cigar in the other, stands between the stage and the wrestling ring. His partner, the more casually dressed Dave McKinney, leans with one foot on a chair, arms across his knee, on the other side of the room. Both gaze with barely repressed delight at the chaos they have wrought: the Felton has hosted music acts and boxing matches, but never anything like this.
The Cash Money Brothers consisting of leader Flexx Wheeler, O.Dogg and the two West Side Boyz strut out of the ring after the pre-fight warm-up to boos and scattered cheers. Wheeler's long-winded diatribe managed to insult just about everyone in the building ("If you're not with us, you can go out the door and around the corner to the liquor store, where half y'all probably came from anyway"). A tall, balding, beer-gutted fan with wild eyes he's really into this taunts the wrestlers as they leave, calling them "the four losers." One of the Boyz turns and points at him threateningly, but the fan stands his ground. "C'mon, boy!" he calls mockingly. "Shine my shoes, boy!" The wrestler waves dismissively and stalks off with the rest.
A half hour or so later, Twiggy Ramirez's long, straggly black hair flops wildly as he kicks Kid America's red, white and blue-clad ass. Kid seems stunned, making only feeble attempts to defend himself against Ramirez's methodical pummeling. This does not go over well with the crowd; the fans most of them, anyway shout encouragement to Kid, and boo and scream insults at Twiggy when he stops to wag his tongue maniacally at them and slap himself in the head. The same fan who teased the West Side Boyz bellows at Ramirez: "Hey, loser!" The wrestler, who has Kid pinned in a corner, responds wearily: "What do you want, Stan?" The fan smiles broadly, pleased to have been noticed. "You're a faggot! Faaaggot! Faaaaaaaaggot!"
Still later: the Wheeler brothers the aforementioned Flexx and the smaller and less obnoxious Flash are out of the ring again, grappling just inches from the ringside seats. The much-hyped grudge match between the warring siblings has gotten nasty; chairs and other unsanctioned implements are dragged into the fray. Suddenly Flash rises and dashes up the steps of the nearby 6-foot-high stage in an apparent retreat. When Flexx turns to the crowd and crows, arms in the air, Flash sprints across the stage, which is about 6 feet off the floor, and leaps at his brother's back. He sails an easy 10 or 12 feet, tackling Flexx from behind. The crowd goes berserk.
The hysteria that accompanied the entrance of fan-favorite PR (as in Puerto Rican) Swat Team has turned to anguished cries of disbelief. Overgrown metalheads Assault and Battery, weighing in at a combined 715 pounds, go to work on one of the members of the leaner Swat Team. The young women in the front row can't take it; two cover their eyes and grip each other's hands as the long-haired giants throw their hero to the canvas over and over. A third springs to her feet and screams furiously at the distracted referee: "Yo, ref, what da fuck?"
Through it all Aviles is beaming, forgetting the cigar in his excitement. McKinney just smiles and shakes his head.
Welcome to the Grande Wrestling Alliance, Philadelphia's newest entry into the insanely popular world of professional wrestling. Run by two experienced boxing promoters, and boasting a stable of up-and-coming grapplers both impressively chiseled and impossibly fat, the GWA plans to capitalize on the sport's demographics-defying appeal, and promises to show fans of all ages, colors and creeds what pro wrestling is all about.
Say what you will, professional wrestling is huge. The major players, WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and WCW (World Championship Wrestling), broadcast their weekly shows to every market in the country, and air a dozen or more pay-per-view specials annually. Magazines and Web sites both official and fan-created abound. Live shows typically sell out, and not just in the heartland, where cynical Northeasterners like to think all wrestling fans live.
With GWA, Philadelphia now has two wrestling leagues. The upstart Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) is based in South Philadelphia, and has grown faster than its founder ever dreamed (see sidebar).
So what exactly is the appeal? Ask wrestlers and fans, and you'll hear the same words again and again: athleticism, emotion, drama, interaction. No one mentions "sheer lunacy," but that's got to be part of it as well. GWA's slogan "All hell is breaking loose!" wasn't chosen because it looks good on posters.
"Wrestling [appeals to] all children, all adults, whether they're black, white, Latino all colors, all creeds," says Aviles. "It's just universal."
That might be overstating it, but he's right on the "all colors, all creeds" count. GWA's July 20 show at the Felton Supper Club, 4800 Rising Sun Ave., attracted a crowd as diverse as you'll find in this city just about equal parts white, black and Latino. Fan allegiance tended to break along racial lines, but not exclusively, and as many cheered for the loud-mouthed Flexx and just plain disturbing Twiggy as they did for the more likable Kid America and 375-pound Rolling Thunder. Kids and teens outnumbered adults, but just barely.
But is it real?
Wrestlers and fans don't like this question. Apparently to them it is more than a simple inquiry; perhaps it reminds them of their outcast status as lovers of a pastime that exists somewhere between pure sport and pure entertainment, and is rejected by both. "I mean, you go to a Broadway show that's fake, isn't it?" asks Aviles. "We see wrestling as a high art form."
The late Alan Raskin, popular wrestling columnist for the South Philadelphia Review, used to explain it this way: "The outcome may be pre-determined, but everything that goes on in the ring is real. They are real athletes, and they are really beating the hell out of one another."
Aviles is well aware that most people hold professional wrestling in low regard, viewing it as little more than a circus with violent clowns. He is aware of this, but that doesn't mean he has to put up with it.
Turning down the sound on the battered old television, he faces the 20 or so wrestlers filling the grimy room, watching a tape of their most recent performance. "This is Frank," he says to them, setting his hand on my shoulder. "His article will come out in the City Paper next Thursday. I wanted you to see what he looks like, so if he harpoons wrestling, you know who to go after."
"Be careful, Frank," someone calls out. "We know where you work."
Suddenly I feel even skinnier than usual.
Aviles just smiles but not a "Ha ha, we're just kidding" kind of smile. This one seems to say, "I'm trusting you, but I can't say what these guys might do if you let me down."
Clearly, Aviles has learned a thing or two about promotion.
By day, he runs Aviles Jewelers on Haverford Avenue. For the last eight or nine years, he's also dabbled in boxing, mostly as a promoter who admits he'll do just about anything to put bodies in seats. "My style of boxing includes pyrotechnics, women that can do things with pectoral muscles as ring-card girls, special effects on stage, having two Latino DJs fight each other as a semi-main event, you name it," he brags. "My shows are as close to X-rated as possible."
His endless search for new talent led him, quite unexpectedly, to wrestling.
"I happened to see a couple of big guys arguing about something [outside a gym at Fifth and Allegheny], and I happened to stick my nose in there... to see if I could pull them into professional boxing." Turned out they were wrestlers Bad Boy LHT ("Latin Heart-Throb") and The Reaper who, along with some others, had been trying unsuccessfully to launch their own league. Their only event to that point had been an illegal garage match that attracted all of five paying customers.
"So I said, 'Well, how good are you guys?'" Aviles recalls. "And they said, 'You want to see how good we are? Come to the gym.'"
"The gym," he would learn, is actually a grimy auto repair shop near Lehigh and Aramingo, where cars take up as much space as the ring. Still, Aviles was impressed.
"I couldn't believe, number one, the camaraderie, and two, their ability," he says. "I came away thinking, 'What took me away from wrestling?' When I was young, I knew the name of every wrestler... And the more I started coming [to the gym], the more I started watching, I thought, 'You know, I could put something together.'"
Certain he was onto something, Aviles called Dave "Mack" McKinney, a boxing manager who'd helped Aviles get into the sport years ago. McKinney, who manages current USBA welterweight champ Tony "Pound for Pound" Martin, and Terrence Lewis, ranked 17th in the world, scoffed at first.
"I said, 'Wrasslin'? Man, you know I'm into boxing,'" he recalls. "He says, 'Man, these guys I got, they're beautiful, they can wrassle. Anything you see on WWF, they can do.'"
Aviles talked his friend into coming out to the gym for a demonstration. "I told Mack, 'I want you to sit here for two minutes. If you're not convinced that this is as good as the WWF or any of the independent organizations, you can leave.' And after two minutes, he says to me, 'I feel like I'm 13 years old again!'"
Two months into the experiment, that youthful excitement, more than anything, is what keeps McKinney coming back. "With boxing, I gotta be an adult," he says. "With wrasslin', I can be a kid."
"The truth of the matter is with boxing, you gotta be an adult and ruthless," Aviles adds. "With [wrestling], you can just be yourself."
Backstage at the Felton, one hour before showtime. Stacks of chairs line the walls. The only light comes from a small television, showing a live feed from the camera currently trained on the empty ring. Large bodies move in the shadows, stretching, twisting, throwing half-hearted punches to loosen up. Some are in costume, others in shorts and T-shirts.
"I can't get dressed yet," Bob Steele tells another wrestler. "I don't go 'til last. I'll be running the walls."
Steele is one of today's featured attractions. The buzz-cut blond monster will fight the mysterious Jason the 13th of Crystal Lake, naturally for the GWA World Heavyweight Championship in the last match of the afternoon. (Heated rivalries, particularly those with an element of good against evil, are as much a part of wrestling as pile drivers and body slams. GWA is wasting no time in establishing personal beefs, as well as alliances of convenience.)
If Steele's worried about his appointment with death incarnate, he doesn't show it.
"I was this big at 12 years old," he says, chatting easily. "Six-foot-two at 12 years old. And from there I grew out." The program lists his weight at 305.
He always wanted to be a wrestler, he recalls. "It was the first thing I ever watched," he says. Pro wrestling legends like Chief Jay Strongbow, Bruno Sammartino and their contemporaries were his idols.
His story is common among the wrestlers, even those not blessed with Steele's impressive mass. Slayer, one-half of the comparatively small tag team Irish Rebellion ("Yeah, we're from Dooblin," he says, rolling his eyes and smiling sheepishly), says wrestling gives him and his brother Sparky an outlet for their sometimes overwhelming desire to beat people up. (Most of them are reluctant to talk seriously on the record. Even when the tape recorder is off, they tend to stay in character.)
Fortunately, not all of them rely on characters (known in wrestling as "faces," or good guys, and "heels," bad guys).
"I was a two-time Golden Glove champion kickboxer, but I wanted a little more action," says 21-year-old Syclone, of the PR Swat Team, who will later be carried off on a stretcher after the match with Assault and Battery. "I moved back to Philadelphia [from Rhode Island], and one day I just saw the gym there, so I got into [the group that became the GWA] and I've been in it ever since."
Someone comes in with pitchers of ice water and plastic cups. Most of the wrestlers crowd around. The typically silent Sparky announces to no one in particular, "Heh heh, I want a beer," sounding just like Beavis. He leans into the tape recorder: "I want a beer. I want a beer! Yeahhhhh! Boi-oi-oi-oing!"
The sound of slams can be heard clearly outside the GWA's gym-garage headquarters and training center. Inside, a lone wrestler crosses his arms over his chest and throws himself backwards over and over, slapping his arms on the canvas and grunting loudly each time. A mechanic working on a Buick Skylark just 10 feet away pays no attention.
The young wrestler pauses finally and walks slowly around the ring, breathing heavily. Then he starts again, falling face-first this time. He doesn't have it quite right yet he's still using his knees and forearms to break his fall but he's getting there.
The wrestler's manager, Preston Buttons (no, of course that's not his real name), sticks his head in the door. "How many did you do?" he demands. "I don't know, some," the wrestler mumbles. "I told you 20," Buttons says, then bounds into the ring. "C'mon, let's go, like this," Buttons says, hurling himself backwards and slamming the canvas.
Another wrestler joins in, and soon all three are stomping around, bouncing off the ropes and crashing to the canvas. Buttons swan-dives off the ropes, and rattles the entire ring with a flawless belly-flop.
Hysterical cheering and whooping rolls out of a room nearby. The rest of the league is watching a tape of last Sunday's show at the Felton. "No FEAR!" someone roars after an especially nasty slam. Flexx and Flash Wheeler sit near each other in the middle of the room, laughing uproariously as they watch themselves on the small screen, stretched out on the canvas, writhing and twitching in agony.
"Oh yeah, Syclone came out of his coma,"Aviles says, perched on a desk in the tiny lobby of WPEB 88 FM at 40th and Market Streets. And there's that smile again, just like the one that followed his thinly veiled threat of grave physical harm if he doesn't like the article.
In wrestling, what goes on between matches is almost as important as the action in the ring. The never-ending litany of threats, challenges and insults is part of the game. Just because the fans went home doesn't mean the performance has ended.
Hence, the Tuesday night radio show. The first order of business for this show is to create some bad blood between two of the more popular GWA wrestlers, Bob Steele and Flexx Wheeler.
When the show starts, McKinney sits in a corner, fielding phone calls. Aviles hovers behind the hosts, working the controls and passing notes. Steele is answering questions about his victory over Jason the 13th, and the videotaped challenge from renowned America-hater Erik Von Magnusson that followed, when Wheeler calls in from his limousine.
Flexx had taken exception to Steele's disrespectful comments he insisted on referring to the Cash Money Brothers as the Cash Money Boys but winds up arguing with one of the hosts, the designated "face" supporter. (The hosts also provide commentary for GWA's live shows.)
"You don't get it," Wheeler tells him. "It's all about mon-nay, it's all about keepin' it in the fam-a-lay. The clothes I'm wearin' right now cost more than your whole house!"
And so on and so forth. Flexx eventually signs off, then appears in the studio window seconds later, laughing and pointing at Steele, clearly pleased with himself.
Calls trickle in. The first two callers sound like teenage girls. One wants to know if Syclone is OK. Yes, she's told, he came out of the coma earlier today (Flexx and O.Dogg, for reasons sure to be explained at a future bout, had stormed the ring during the PR Swat Team's match with Assault and Battery, and Syclone was removed on a stretcher.)
The other girl also asks about Syclone: "Does he have a girlfriend?" The hosts appear befuddled for a moment, then politely explain that she can ask Syclone herself when he stops by later in the show.
Every so often, Flexx's booming cackle seeps right through the walls.
Preparations are under way for GWA's next show, Aug. 22 at the Felton. Until then, hints about what's to come will be dropped on the radio show. So far, this much has been determined: the PR Swat Team will wrestle the West Side Boyz for the tag team title, with each team's buddies handcuffed at ringside to ensure a clean fight. (But don't count on it.)
Erik Von Magnusson, who challenged Steele, probably will face Rolling Thunder before getting a shot at Steele's title.
Bad Boy LHT will take on the flamboyant Battle Star, who made a quick appearance at the July 20 show but didn't wrestle.
And somebody maybe at the next show, maybe not is going to jump from the balcony to the ring. You read it here first.
Aviles will say no more.
"There's always surprises," he explains; there must be, if GWA is to thrive. "We want the hardcore fans, but we also want the casual fans, because casual fans can be converted."