Dismissing wrestling because it's fake is like criticizing King Lear for being inaccurate history. Those who do so miss the point. When skilled wrestlers get together, they jam like musicians, pairing the physical abilities of a gymnast with the responsive skills of an improv comic. And like an actor playing Lear, the men and women who step into the ring are motivated by a desire to tell stories about characters who are larger than life and to put on the kind of shows that make people want to shout. "It's a cool feeling to go out in front of 10,000 or 15,000 people and have them in the palm of your hand and to be able to stand them up and sit them down," says Ken Wayne, former wrestler and founder of the "Nightmare" Ken Wayne School of Professional Wrestling.
Wayne can list wrestling moves like he is reciting the alphabet: standing arm drag, hip toss, body slam, locking up, grabbing roll, alligator roll, hitting the ropes, gut wrench take-down, top wrist-lock, bottom wrist-lock, hammer-lock, full Nelson, and so on. Everything in wrestling, he insists, is derived from these and a few other essentials.
"I have guys come in here and ask, 'What kind of gimmick can I be?'" Waynes says. "I say, 'Shut the fuck up. Learn your craft, and you can be any kind of gimmick they ask you to be.'"
In a metal shed in a grubby corner of West Memphis, Arkansas, Kevin Charles, a stout man in his 20s, stoops to pick up a broom. He surveys the large empty room around him and the wrestling ring at its center, then with a feline grace at odds with his lumpy physique, he dives under the ropes, springs to his feet, and begins to tidy up the place. He dances his broom around the mat with studied purpose and meditative calm. Friday nights are fight nights at the school. The audience is on the way, and everything has to be perfect.
Charles, a New Orleans native, is a bartender and National Guardsman who enrolled in Wayne's school because he's always dreamed about flying off the top rope. He didn't know if he was the kind of guy who could do it, but now he believes he is that kind of guy.
He also understands now that when a match is over and the bright lights dim, the loud threats crossfade into collegial laughter. "Humble or stumble" is the wrestling fraternity's guiding principle.
For every student like Charles, there are eight or nine who don't make it past the first week of training. Wayne, the son of Memphis wrestler-turned-promoter Buddy Wayne, blames himself for the dropout rate. "I anticipated about a two-thirds percent quitter," he says, a Kool 100 smoldering in the ashtray near the freshly cracked beer on his desk. "It's more like about an 80 or 90 percent quitter. I probably run a lot of people off because I tell them exactly what it is they're getting their ass into."
Wayne grew up with a wrestling ring in his backyard and has done just about everything you can do in the business. He's built rings, hauled rings, and broken them down. He's wrestled solo as a bleach-blond brawler and alongside Danny Davis as half of a scrappy, masked tag team called the Nightmares. He grew up on the road with his dad, riding from town to town and from dressing room to dressing room. He knows what it's like to hold a championship belt over his head and to take four Darvons and not feel relief because he wrestled with cerebral fluid on his spine.
Wayne says he never imagined running a wrestling school when he got out of the business in 2005. Eight months after retiring, he faced the realities of being 46 years old, unemployed, and not knowing a thing in the world but wrestling.
"I didn't retire; I just quit," Wayne says. His skills were slipping. He hurt more than ever, and he could no longer fool himself into believing that fact wasn't reflected in the quality of his bookings. Increasingly, he was matched against wrestlers who were, in his opinion, poorly trained or not trained at all.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys who are the last to know that they should have retired a few years ago," he confesses. "And I didn't want to have a career-ending injury. What sense would that make?"
Wayne never became a WWE superstar, but for a smaller-than-average wrestler who came of age in the 1980s, when giants were all the rage and masked marvels were out of style, he pieced together an impressive 26-year career that took him across the United States and Canada and into Puerto Rico — where air conditioning is scarce and blood is absolutely expected.
"I've done all this," he insists. "I can teach these kids a whole lot more than just how to do a bunch of holds. They need history. It's essential that you know where you came from. And they also need to have a philosophy."
Wayne's school maintains a small but diverse student body of athletes, nerds, flamboyant personalities, and everyday Joes. At one end of the spectrum, there are wrestlers like Wayne's son Eric "3-G" Wayne, who bills himself as a "third-generation wrestling superstar," and 25-year-old Kevin "Kid" Nikels, a 220-pound construction worker with a bald head, a shoulder covered with tattoos, and the roar of a Viking berserker. Self-effacing backstage, Nikels describes himself as a "strong style" wrestler who doesn't mind getting knocked around.
In the opposite corner are saucer-eyed beginners like D.J. Stegall, an excitable, pint-sized fanboy of 19 who works for his father at a KFC in Batesville, Mississippi.
Between the extremes, there are intermediate grapplers like Charles and boy-next-door-type Dan Jones, an electronics repairman for Walgreens, who wrestles under the name Dan Matthews.
All of Wayne's students do have one thing in common: They grew up obsessed with TV wrestling. Most of them associate watching wrestling with happy memories of family life. They have nearly identical stories about bounding off their living-room sofas to put an elbow drop on dad or a sibling. "Hit him in the balls," Nikels says with a laugh, remembering a particularly effective off-the-couch strike against his old man.
Nikels is a graduate trainer at Wayne's school. He describes wrestling as therapy. "Sometimes you have a bad day or you're stressed out," he says. "But once I come in here and get started wrestling, it goes away. You think about throwing this guy or punching him in the head. You take out your frustrations and forget about what's bothering you outside the room. It's like going to the doctor's office."
Nikels originally wanted to be a rock star, but he didn't have the guitar chops. "So I figured I should work on getting big and learning how to wrestle," he says, describing a period when he trained three days a week, went to college full time, worked construction full time, and hit the 24-hour gym after hours. "I got used to sleeping only two or three hours a night," he says, rubbing his head bashfully and laughing at his obsession.
Hard work has paid off for both Nikels and Eric Wayne. Both have been called into auditions for the WWE and have received positive feedback. The younger Wayne says he left the audition feeling like he and Nikels already possess the skills they need to go all the way. "But you've got to stand out," he explains.
"The WWE is the top notch, so you've gotta be top-notch too," Nikels adds.
Both take this to mean they need to be bigger, or at the very least more ripped.
"You have to look like an athlete," Eric Wayne says. "If you're 185 pounds and ripped to shreds and you can actually wrestle and you don't trip over yourself getting in the ring, chances are you might be hired and get to the big show."
"Size is a big plus, but it's not the be-all and end-all," says Bruno Lauer. Known to Memphis wrestling fans as Downtown Bruno and to WWE fans as bad-guy manager Dr. Harvey Whippleman, Lauer sits with a beer in his north Mississippi clubhouse beside an action figure that looks just like him. Nearby is the WWE women's championship belt that he won by dressing up in drag and taking on the KAT in a special snow-filled ring.
Lauer, a referee and occasional adviser at Wayne's school, is the picture of contentment. Today, the self-described "dried-up 120-pound redneck" works outside the spotlight as head concierge for the WWE, a gig he describes as "head gofer." He is thrilled to have beaten the odds and made a 30-year career in professional wrestling. Lauer stresses the importance of charisma and credits his own unlikely longevity to "heart."
"To paraphrase Gene Hackman's Coach McGinty in the greatest movie of all time, The Replacement, [I owe my 30 years in the business to] heart. Tons and tons of heart," Lauer says.
"Everybody says professional wrestling is fake," Eric Wayne says. "They say we know how to fall and we pull our punches. My reply is, I've knocked out people's teeth; I've broken their orbital bones; I've shattered their knees."
The young wrestler isn't bragging and is remorseful for what he views as an unfortunate combination of poor judgment, circumstances, and bad luck. He worries that a reputation for being careless and cocky could hurt his chances for advancement. "When you start wrestling, your dreams and aspiration are 'I want to make it to the big show. I'll do whatever's asked of me,'" he says.
"There's an expression they have backstage [at the WWE]," Wayne adds. "They say, 'Humble or stumble.'"
"I'm going for it," Dan Jones declares during a break in his Monday-night training. At 31, Jones is old for a wrestling student. He knows he's only got about 10 years to see if he has what it takes to make it in the WWE.
"[My wife's] the one who told me to go do it," Jones says. "She saw how depressed I was just sitting on the couch watching [other people] do it. She said go do it. Get it out of your system."
Charles is younger and less driven than Jones. He's open to the idea of a professional career but also enjoys wrestling for its own sake. "You're not only performing athletically, you're putting on a show for the fans," he says. He calls the complex relationship between wrestlers and their audience "a new level of professionalism that you really can't find anywhere else."
On Fridays, a little before 7 p.m., a "$5 Admission" sign goes up near the door, and Wayne's secluded school on Jefferson Street is transformed into the high-tech home of New Experience Wrestling (N.E.W.), a weekly promotion that showcases the school's graduates and experienced students.
Wayne and his wife, Debra — also a second-generation wrestler — stand backstage, working out the show's technical details. "Today's wrestling business, on a national scale, is called 'sports entertainment,'" he explains, wondering aloud if fans might be attracted to a more competitive approach, blending older and newer styles of wrestling. "We want to show off the athletic abilities of our performers," he says.
N.E.W. events also help Wayne's students learn how to perform in front of a television camera and provide opportunities for training in operating audio, video, and computer equipment.
As fans take their places in a double row of folding chairs, two announcers banter, testing their microphones. Camera operators check their video equipment. Backstage, the wrestlers psych each other up for the show.
There aren't more than 30 people in the audience, but when the lights come up, the N.E.W. wrestlers go at it like there are 30,000 people in the seats. It's another chance for Eric Wayne to prove he's a superstar who isn't careless; another opportunity for Kevin Charles to live his dream and for the undefeated "Kid" Nikels to prove he's still the baddest man in the building and worth the thousand-dollar bounty on his head. It's a big show. They all are.
What most people call bleeding, wrestlers call "getting color." And, like the costumes and the trash-talking interviews, it's all part of the show. But there is nothing premeditated about the color drawn during Matthews' brawl with "Golden Boy" Greg Anthony, his fourth official fight in front of a paying audience. And the blood was nothing compared to the distraction of seeing his wife on the front row, calming their small children, who couldn't understand why Daddy was taking what appeared to be the beating of a lifetime.
After the match, an upbeat Matthews tells his instructors he won't be available for regular training on Sunday evening because he needs some family time. "It's my anniversary weekend," he says sheepishly.
Ken Wayne voices his approval. "You don't want to miss your anniversary," the twice-married "Nightmare" cautions.
"Well," Matthews says, walking out into the school's parking lot, past a maze of forklift pallets, mountains of sawdust, and shattered lumber, "my anniversary is actually today." The other wrestlers laugh and nod their heads knowingly.
"I'm here at the 'Nightmare' Ken Wayne School of Professional Wrestling, because, basically, it's my life," D.J. Stegall says, prior to a Monday-night class. He might as well be speaking for everyone who has ever found his way to Wayne's school and stuck around for more than a week. Stegall says he's no longer bothered that people taunt him because of his small stature, and he doesn't care what anybody thinks about his decision to go into the ring.
"I'm not in it for the celebrity status," Stegall says. "My goal is to be considered a great wrestler. Whether I get to the WWE or not, whether I'm wrestling in front of five people or 500 or selling out Madison Square Garden, I want you to look at me and say, 'That guy's a great wrestler.' I'm in this for respect and to do what I love."