Originally created 08/17/97

Wrasslin'



"Y'all ready for some wrasslin'?"

Scattered whoops and hollers erupt from the modest crowd of about 60 folks assembled in Durango's Bar & Grill on a warm Wednesday night in Hephzibah.

The announcer, Jim Lewis, a big man with a graying beard and deep baritone voice, works the crowd with practiced enthusiasm.

A collection of local fans ranging in age from less than 6 to well past 60, have come to watch big men in tight pants bellow and battle.

By the end of the night their appetite for action will be sated.

Bad guys will cheat and good guys will persevere. Threats will be issued, schemes bungled and fortunes fantastically reversed.

This is small-time professional wrestling.

WHILE NOT AS POLISHED or practiced as its nationally televised big brother, it still delivers much of the same drama and entertainment.

Local shows have always been the heart of wrestling - where its origins lie.

"It's like the minor leagues," said Greg Thompson, 31, a part-time promoter and wrestler known as Omega Man.

When he's not in the ring, Mr. Thompson works as a history teacher and football coach at Langford Middle School.

"I started off by having pro wrestling at school for fund-raisers," he said.

A LIFELONG WRESTLING FAN, Mr. Thompson finally made it inside the ropes about four years ago against a nasty fellow known as Ice Pick Malone.

Unfortunately, his opponent came out on top. "You've got to pay your dues before you get a victory," Mr. Thompson said.

As Omega Man - a nod to his college fraternity - he makes up part of the Dream Team, with friend Leroy Griffin, better known among grappling circles as A-Train.

Mr. Griffin, 38, is a social worker at St. Joseph Hospital. His ring name is a reference to his Brooklyn, N.Y. origins, where his fascination for wrestling began as a boy. "While a lot of my friends were looking at basketball games, I was going to Madison Square Garden to see wrestling."

OMEGA MAN AND A-TRAIN are like a lot of guys in independent wrestling. They have full-time day jobs, families and mortgages - they even have college degrees.

But, all the while they secretly cling to the dream of hitting the big time, and the financial rewards that go with it.

"If I got a big break I'd say bye to social work in a minute," Mr. Griffin said.

And unlike 20 years ago, the big time nowadays can be huge.

"It's a testosterone soap opera," said Alan Sharp, public relations director for World Championship Wrestling, the most popular of the two major wrestling leagues.

Among the cognoscenti of American culture, professional wrestling has a bit of a low-brow reputation. It is generally depicted as brain candy for slack-jawed, trailer park shut-ins with more money invested in their cable bills than their dental plans.

BUT IN THE PAST DECADE wrestling has exploded in popularity, largely because of the promotion efforts of

World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and its rival league, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).

The top-rated wrestling show, WCW Monday Nitro, reaches about 9.6 million households each week. In addition, the WCW promotes more than 200 live arena events throughout North America, Japan and Europe every year. "We routinely sell out each and every week," Mr. Sharp said.

He would not say how much money stars such as Hulk Hogan and Rick Flair earn, nor would he comment on WCW yearly profits. "Obviously, it's hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

The lure of those substantial rewards has hundreds of hopeful Hulksters clamouring to get in every year.

One local boy has become a hero for aspiring wrestlers - 24-year-old Paul Wight, 24, of Aiken. The 7-foot, 4-inch Mr. Wight is a major star in the WCW, where he goes by the moniker The Giant for obvious reasons.

Mr. Wight graduated from King Academy in Saluda, S.C., in 1990 and played basketball for a year at Wichita State University in Kansas before stepping into the wrestling ring.

When he transformed himself into The Giant - touted by WCW promotional material as weighing 450 pounds, with a size 17 shoe - he became the WCW's youngest world heavyweight champion ever.

Mr. Lewis, Durango's announcer, is an independent wrestling promoter in Greenville, S.C. His Southern Championship Wrestling Training Center has 35 to 40 applicants every new session, he said.

Students pay $150 to enroll in the school's grueling three-day tryout. "The second day we'll have 10 left," he said.

Those who make it through all three days and show some potential have the opportunity to train at Mr. Lewis' school for the next six months. There they will learn everything they need to know to get in the ring with the big boys.

Almost everyone in wrestling says the best way to get started is to get trained. "Find a credible training school," Mr. Thompson said.

But, there are others who manage without formal training.

Clay Woodward, 32, half of a tag-team known as Justice Incorporated, gets his training from his partner, J.D. Bledsoe - a Harlem police officer.

"J.D. was trained by the Super Enforcer," said Mr. Woodward, parts manager at Milton Ruben Auto Mall.

Justice Incorporated pride themselves on being the bad guys of the local wrestling scene.

"We came in as goody-two-shoes, law abiding professionals, but then we got fed up with the system," said Mr. Woodward, otherwise known as C.W. Justice.

THE PERFORMANCE ASPECT of wrestling gets his blood flowing. "To do a big move, pull it off successfully and hear the crowd pop - there's nothing like it."

At ringside, Justice Incorporated has increased its entertainment capital with the recent acquisition of a female manager, Sandi Sable. Ms. Sable, otherwise known as Augusta State University business major Leslie Morris, joined the group in January.

Her main function is ornamental. The svelte, 20-year-old blonde primarily escorts the wrestlers to and from the dressing room, but she has been known to get in on the action.

"I've hit somebody with a high-heeled shoe and sprayed hair spray in somebody's face," she said, with a hint of glee in her voice.

Back at Durango's the night is winding to a close.

The headline attraction, a wrestler known as Johnny Attitude, claims Brooklyn as his home. Sunglasses, slicked-back hair and an open leather vest revealing his rippling torso lend substance to his character as he taunts the crowd.

"Shut up you bunch of trailer trash!"

As the villain, part of his job is to work the crowd into a frenzy, to make them hate him so much they don't care whom he wrestles - as long as he loses.

"The next time I come here, I'm going to personally donate a bar of soap to each and every one of you scumbags. Because I know you've never seen one yourselves," he shouts.

Another wrestler watching from the sidelines looks on in admiration.

"God, he's good," he says.

LIVE WRESTLING

AMATEUR: The new management at Durango's Bar & Grill, 4125 Peach Orchard Road, Hephzibah, will have wrestling the first Wednesday of every month, starting Sept. 2. Admission will be $5 in advance and $6 at showtime. Call 592-1155 for more information.
PROFESSIONAL: World Championship Wrestling will tape one, and maybe two, of its Saturday-night programs, beginning at 7 Aug. 26 at the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center. Tickets are $23, $16 and $11. For information, call 724-2400.

Wrestling schools

Aspiring wrestlers can test themselves at the 12,000-square-foot WCW Training Center in Atlanta, otherwise known as the "Power Plant." The next grueling three-day tryout is Sept. 10-12. Applicants must be 18-28 years of age and weigh at least 180 pounds. They must have a doctor's release and are expected to be in "the best physical shape of their life." It costs $250 to try out, and those who survive and impress the instructors may be invited to train for a six-month trial. Call (404) 351-4959 for more information.
Southern Championship Wrestling Training Center in Greenville, S.C., also offers a six-month training program. Students pay $150 to enroll in the school's three-day tryout. Those who survive and show some potential have the opportunity to train at the school. Call (864) 877-5890.