Behind a curtain at the Sunnybrook Golf and Bowl, muscular men are air-wrestling, choreographing moves and carefully taping razor blades around their fingers. Behind them, two midget wrestlers prepare stacks of their promotional photos for the intermission autograph line.
The scene is even more surreal because these walking bundles of scar tissue are surrounded by miniature play sets and kindergarten toys — the area is normally used as a nursery.
Things are running behind schedule. A crowd of more than 200 awaits a night of Independent Wrestling Revolution (IWR), a monthly fixture on this side of Sterling Heights since January. It’s kind of like the low-rent minor leagues for TV’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), though most combatants are here because they love wrestling, not because they have realistic aspirations of appearing in a national pay-per-view match.
They are independent pro wrestlers. Yet the title is a bit of a misnomer. The term “pro” connotes a profession, as in compensation, and these weekend warriors make personal, physical and financial sacrifices for very little money or respect outside the business. But none involved would trade this lifestyle for anything, except perhaps a contract with the ready-for-prime-time WWE.
The garishly costumed wrestlers gather around IWR co-founder and promoter Dynamic Josh Movado to hear who’s performing when and against whom. Movado thanks them for helping promote the IWR and closes with a pep talk that evokes a round of applause. It’s an inspiring moment that also relieves any performance anxiety.
Everyone exits except one wrestler who remains in the locker room with a smirk on his face. He mockingly whispers, “It’s not 100 percent real. Shhhh.”
After the national anthem and a touching 10-bell salute for the passing of wrestling legend Wahoo McDaniels, the smoke machine fires up, a multicolored light show erupts, the PA system blasts two head-banging songs and two gladiators in tights battle it out, much to the enchantment of the crowd — most of whom aren’t old enough to buy a beer from the bar.
The mob merrily highlights noticeable mistakes — “missed spots” in wrestling lexicon — with a chant of “You fucked up!”
A hanging light fixture seems dangerously close to the ring — a miscalculated high-flying move might leave someone impaled on it.
The “One-Legged Wonder” Tenacious Z referees one match. He hops from corner to corner, keeping watch for any illegal chokes or foreign objects. After 10 minutes or so, the bad guy scores the 1 … 2 … 3 pin, much to the dismay of the fans.
The hall is filled with chants of “You suck!”
World of hurt
At work in the packaging company he co-manages, Tommy Lapeer doesn’t look much like a wrestler. There’s gray in his facial hair. He can’t weigh more than 200 pounds. He’s a 38-year-old family man with a wife and six kids — not necessarily someone bearing an aura of intimidation.
Inside the ring, however, he is transformed. He becomes Death Dealer Tommy Starr, and he makes up for his lack of size with a character who enjoys dishing out and taking physical punishment with an array of weapons — his favorite is usually something wrapped in barbed wire.
It’s true that a lot of what goes on in the ring is choreographed, but the pain is very real.
Nobody knows this better than Lapeer, who’s compiled a laundry list of injuries since he first got into a ring as a teenager.
“As of late, it’s taken me a lot longer to heal,” Lapeer says. “I’ve had four broken ribs. I’ve had both of my knees messed up, lower back muscles pulled. I’ve had a broken arm, broke the bone under my kneecap, hundreds of stitches, 30 staples, shoulder separation, how many times I’ve been hit in the head …
“It’s kind of scary to think what could happen in 10 to 15 years with arthritis or whatever. I’m sitting here right now with a broken ankle and ripped ligaments, and I’d go back there tonight and wrestle. It’s a rush.”
The ankle fracture occurred during an eight-man tag-team match. Seven of the eight contenders were trading kicks and punches outside the ring when, out of nowhere, Mr. Insanity did a flip off the ring apron onto the phalanx of fighters. Lapeer absorbed the brunt. His ankle snapped upon impact. Amazingly, he finished the match, which went on for an additional 15 minutes.
“I kept going even though I knew that instant that it was broke,” he says nonchalantly.
“I do like pain. It’s a weird thing to say, but it’s like, the more blood, the better. It’s a sick mental feeling that I get when I am out there. The pain is like my energy; it’s my pusher, and the more pain, the better I feel.
“It doesn’t seem as crazy to me as everybody says it is. It’s just the way I like to do things.”
Lapeer says he goes to the hospital only for serious injuries. He refuses to take pain medication because of the addictive risks.
“I’ve been to the emergency room twice, both for a concussion,” Lapeer says. “You can feel that swelling. I don’t even remember driving home.”
Though he has yet to miss a day at his current job, Lapeer says it’s been difficult to get around with a leg cast. Migraine headaches are a problem.
“I do have really bad headaches,” he says, “and that puts me in a bad mood. I’d say the headaches are affecting me mentally right now. But other than that, nothing else.”
Starting out under the wing of wrestling icon The Sheik, Lapeer’s career has taken him throughout North America and to Puerto Rico and Japan while working matches with such stars Kevin Sullivan and Sabu. He’s run a wrestling school in Florida. He’s one of few who’s made a living (for a time) without signing with a nationally televised federation.
His longevity has earned Lapeer respect and admiration within the dozen independent wrestling federations scattered across the Detroit area.
And he’s a fan favorite due to his work ethic, which keeps him inside the ring, no matter how severe the injury.
“He broke his leg in the middle of a match and not only finished it, but came back out and put a hurting on Bubba Mackenzie” later that evening, says Amado Movado, a guitarist for the band Bump-n-Uglies, which frequently plays at IWR events. “That’s a testament to his dedication to the business.”
Lapeer, who has quit jobs to pursue his “hobby,” explains, “Nobody realizes how much somebody will give up for this business once they’ve started. It’s hard; you’ve got to keep on starting on the bottom of another company.”
His matches involve folding chairs, tables, kendo sticks, barbed wire, thumbtacks, fire and anything else that might inflict pain.
His family is accustomed to it all, but Lapeer says his kids “don’t go at all to hard-core shows, and I don’t take them. They really don’t like it, especially the littler ones.”
Family obligations come first. Lapeer left a full-time wrestling career in Florida nine years ago for a job that included health benefits.
“My oldest daughter developed diabetes, and it was rough with no insurance,” Lapeer says. “And wrestling doesn’t pay enough to pay for insurance.”
His wife, Candy, has learned to accept her husband’s bizarre lifestyle.
“It’s a dream of his. I don’t mind it,” she says. “It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to stop it. He does this as often as he can. He’d do it full time if he could.”
She concedes that injuries are a big concern.
“I used to worry a lot in the beginning,” especially after he started appearing in hard-core matches, she says. “But you get used to it after a while. It doesn’t stop him from work, even with a broken ankle.”
Asked if he got another opportunity to wrestle in Japan and had to quit his day job, Candy doesn’t hesitate.
“I’d say, ‘Have fun, see you when you get home and call me once in a while,’” she says, noting that such a scenario has occurred before.
Lapeer is satisfied as long as he can delve into the ring a few times a month. His goals, in the year he turns 39, are simple and sincere.
“The long-term goal is just hoping that I live long enough to watch all my kids grow up,” he says with a smile. “As long as I stay healthy, that’s about all of my goals.”
“I’m very happy with what I’ve done,” Lapeer says proudly. “I’ve done a little bit of everything in this business. I’ve been around. I’ve got a lot of memories. I can walk into some of the WWE shows and guys know me, and it’s mostly for self-gratification, so I’ve never really pushed myself.”
Apparently, wrestling on a broken leg isn’t pushing it.
There are a slew of wrestling organizations in the Detroit area alone — the IWR, Insane Wrestling Federation, Great Lakes Wrestling, Underground Wrestling Alliance and Xtreme Insane Championship Wrestling, among others — so finding work every weekend isn’t that difficult for a Michigan wrestler.
“It’s hard, though,” says 18-year-old Chris Scobille, who moves furniture when he’s not attending high school or making weekend ring appearances as Jimmy Jacobs. “Especially since pro wrestling has changed. There used to be three promotions in the United States you could make a living off of, and now it’s just the WWE.”
Two big-time associations, the ECW and WCW, went under in 2001, making it much more difficult for an independent wrestler to make it big in North America.
But that doesn’t deter dreams.
“You want to make a living doing something you love,” says Nate Mattson, 25, (aka Amazing N8), “And I love doing this.”
Despite the melodramatic posturing and glorification of violence, the wrestlers see the gig as a chance to promote a wholesome lifestyle. They relish the thought that kids might see them as the one who’ll save the day.
“It’s the power to do something that normal people don’t have,” says 25-year-old George Powelson (aka Gabriel Brimstone), a favorite of kids, even at the gym where he works. “If you could help raise money for anything, for the firefighters, for the handicapped, for little kids, that’s priceless. No amount of money you can make will make that feeling in you … it brings a tear to your eye. That pretty much is what it’s all about.”
Self-gratification is the biggest (and most of the time, only) reward for independent wrestlers. Paydays are few and far between and usually don’t exceed $50. If you’re out to make a buck, you’d have better luck launching a dot-com.
No wrestler would mind making a living in the profession. But achieving such a lifestyle would take years of dues-paying — hard work, meager pay, nagging injuries and a diet of peanut butter sandwiches while your car doubles as a motel.
Such grit endears the grapplers to their fans.
Amado Movado, the guitarist for Bump-n-Uglies, views wrestling as “the most rock ’n’ roll sport … Even though most people don’t consider it a sport, those guys and girls put their bodies through more wear and tear night after night than any football, basketball or hockey player.”
“It’s … everything that I like about my entertainment,” says Dan Merritt, co-owner of Green Brain Comics and frequent Insane Wrestling Federation patron. “You’ve got basic human drama: Man against man. You’ve got a liberal mix of humor and overacted evil despicableness and just plain old athleticism.”
Burnt Hair Records-owner and IWF connoisseur Larry Hoffman explains: “It’s testosterone and bad guys. It’s the ultimate combat theater. Everyone is encouraged to get involved … there’s no such thing as a passive wrestling fan. The audience is just as much of the show as the wrestlers.
“To me, everything in life could be and is associated with wrestling. Heels (bad guys) and faces (good guys) are everywhere in life. Wrestling just gives us a chance to manifest those in a major way without actually getting beat up. It’s like group therapy.”
“This is my drug”
Chris Scobille is positively tiny by pro wrestling standards — 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds. But his pint size helps him become a high-flier in the ring.
“I’ve been doing this all throughout high school,” he says. “So everybody else is out on the weekends, parties, drinking, doing what high-school kids do. And this is my drug; this is what I’m addicted to. It’s the old wrestling cliché: ‘The only way we get high is off the top rope.’ That’s what keeps me going, knowing that I’m Jimmy Jacobs every weekend: I sign autographs and these kids (his high-school peers) get wasted.”
Yet his mother, Margaret, is dubious.
“I’m not thrilled about it, but I tolerate it,” she says. “He has fun at it, he really enjoys it, and I appreciate the fact that he enjoys it, which has a lot to do with why I tolerate it as opposed to forbidding it. Of course, he’ll tell me that he’s 18 and that I can’t forbid it anyway.”
She worries about injuries and his schooling, though Chris carries a 3.8 grade-point average and plans to go to college.
“He’s very bright,” she says with a sigh. “I think he should pursue other things.”
That’s not to say Chris can’t have other priorities.
“I’m going to my senior prom, and I’m skipping out on going wrestling,” he says. “I’m putting my social life first for once, but that’s good because I’m going with my dream girl.”
Nate Mattson, whose spiky brown hair and velvet leopard-print pants give him the class-clown label, was smitten with wrestling as a young boy.
“I looked up to wrestling as like, those guys were the big heroes, they had these big crowds of people. … I want to get the crowd’s reaction,” he explains.
It would be an understatement to say that 2001 was a rough year for Mattson. In March, a freak accident in the ring separated his shoulder, leaving him out of commission for a couple months. And his daytime employer grew weary of his hobby; Mattson had to find another job.
After two months of physical therapy, his shoulder healed and he was back working full time on top of a weekly wrestling schedule.
Within a couple of months, he broke his ankle while trying to catch an opponent who’d flipped off the mat. He had no health insurance.
“I was actually fortunate enough in that they waived a lot of the bill,” Mattson says. “I still ended up footing thousands of dollars for the hospital.”
He didn’t wrestle again until the beginning of 2002, once he was off crutches and the screws were removed from his broken bone.
“It’s just one of those things that happens in a dangerous spot like that. And then there’s the usual — black eyes, busted nose, broken fingers and my knees are bad.”
His wife, Shelly, says her guy knows what he’s doing.
“I’m always concerned that he might break his neck,” she says. “I trust him, but I don’t trust some other people.”
They’ve been married for five years, not as long as he’s been wrestling.
“She knew that I was a wrestler,” he says. “She’s been very supportive.”
Once he had a match booked on his wedding anniversary. He demurred. “There’s no way I’m going to wrestle on my anniversary,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s cool that he has aspirations outside of working a 9-to-5 job,” Shelly says. “He wants to be a superstar, he wants to be seen, and I think that’s fabulous. It’s the keenest thing ever.”
Mattson, who also works full time at a pharmaceutical warehouse, says he approaches wrestling like any other job.
“You have to work at it,” he says. “Most of us are out there every week. We try to get bookings every weekend. We want to get our name out there, get some exposure and get people to know who we are.
“I’m going to do it as long as my body lets me. I’m going to wrestle because it’s the funnest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Nothing compares with it. The fact that we get to be inside a wrestling ring — it’s like living a dream come true.”
“It’s like being a comic-book hero,” says the shaggy-haired George Powelson, who at 6-foot-8 and 330 pounds looks more like a superhero than many other local wrestlers. “Everybody would want to be looked at by the public, and to have an influence on kids. If you can tell them to do the right thing and they’ll listen to you, that’s magic in itself.”
Powelson says his girlfriend supports his wrestling “because she cares about me. She loves me and I love her. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her or nothing bad to happen to me so … I’m some vegetable. She worries about me the most, gives me the most slack because she’s looking out for my best interests.”
Powelson’s mother, Toni, is her son’s biggest fan.
“I love it,” she says, “because I see two different people. I see George who’s a laid-back guy, and then I see someone hyper like Brimstone; it’s amazing.”
She loves watching youngsters at the matches.
“I think the nicest part is the expression on the children’s faces. They really look up to wrestlers. And when the guys come out after the show and talk to the kids, you think they handed them a winning lottery ticket.”
She believes the entertainer-athletes don’t get the respect they deserve.
“I think people need to understand wrestlers a little bit better,” Toni Powelson says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard how fake it is — and it’s not fake. These young men get hurt and they get hurt lots of times.
“That’s the hardest part about wrestling, that I always know. All it takes it one move and his injuries could be really serious. As far as the sport goes, these guys never get a break. They wrestle 52 weeks a year and they work out every day. They truly are an incredible breed.”
Powelson, who’s in his first year of wrestling, does his own physical inventory: “I’ve had broken teeth from getting kicked in the mouth, broken ribs from an elbow drop that went awry, torn cartilage … it just adds up.
“It’s almost like a souvenir list. If you go down your list of injuries, it should make you smile because you’re still here, and you’re still going to go out there and do whatever you can even though all of this bad stuff’s happened to you. You still want to go out there and do it.
“I think most every wrestler will say the same thing,” Powelson says “As long as they have a good heart for it and they’re into it, they’re going to go as long as their bodies are going to last.”
The Independent Wrestling Revolution’s next show is Saturday, June 22, at Sunnybrook Golf and Bowl, 7191 17 Mile Road in Sterling Heights. Admission: $10 for adults, $5 for kids under 12. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information call 313-438-1930 or check out www.pwrhotline.com. For more on Michigan independent wrestling promotions, check out www.nwow.com.
E-mail Michael DaRonco at firstname.lastname@example.org.