In the ring, two young hopefuls are thrashing each other around. A powerbomb is followed by a suplex. Pile driver, D.D.T., arm drag, suicide dive --- the moves come fast and fluid. Outside the ropes, another dozen or two are yelling, joking, kibitzing, and making small talk.
Pre-show practice at Roc City Wrestling is a little like a junior high school locker room. There's constant movement and noise. The smell is not exactly roses and lilacs. Everybody's hopped up and hopeful, getting ready for the big show.
Bodies twist and plummet, and the mat gives up the classic boom of professional wrestling slam-down. But none of these guys are getting paid.
The official name for this controlled mayhem is Amateur Sports Entertainment. Curt Sawyer, who owns the two-year-old R.C.W. (Rochester's only faux-wrestling federation) and the facility where they perform, calls his boys "semi-pro." How this differs from amateur is not clear. But "semi-pro" has a much better ring to it.
OK, so if the pay is minimal, and fame and glory are not in so great supply either, why do these guys spend hours and hours bashing each other and making the big boom sound on the mat?
The standard wisdom is that wrestling is comic books come to life. In the pros, you've got the non-stop slug-fest action, bulging biceps, tights, and silly names. Good guys and bad guys. Testosterone-saturated bellowing. Life as an endless parade of grudge matches and battles-to-the-death.
Most of the scrappers in the Samurai Martial Arts ring on Spencerport Road, where R.C.W. is located, don't have big muscles. A few are positively scrawny. They only get to wrestle before a crowd about once a month. And their costumes are not exactly perfect.
Yeah, Father Synne (age 32, married with two kids) has a pretty snazzy priest outfit, complete with a heavy metal crucifix (a fine weapon or beer-bottle opener), a face mask emblazoned with a white cross, and an ankle-length gown. And Syndy, his 18-year-old sister/manager, looks mighty fetching in her Catholic-school-girl skirt and knee socks.
And yeah, Spaz has those white-out zombie contact lens and fiery orange hair.
But mostly, the wrestlers of R.C.W. wear what might be castoffs from gym class. Superstar Rob Schulz had his name specially printed on the backside of a pair of biking shorts. Huber Boy 2 and Big Daddy Watts look like proud dumpster-divers. And most of the other guys sport an assortment of spandex, ripped T-shirts, sweats, and leather.
This, if anything, adds to the allure of R.C.W. matches. It's all show. But it's definitely not the big time. The wrestlers have neither the profit motive nor the delusional thinking to encourage out-and-out macho madness. Big Daddy Watts can yell and yammer threats like the best of the TV-star wrestlers. But once the show is over, he freely admits, "I can scream like a son of a bitch, but I can't actually wrestle."
That's a bit of an overstatement. Watts is the Hardcore champ of R.C.W. (there are several other wrestling classes in addition to Hardcore). And in this guise, he gets his fair share of chairs on the head. Ladders, traffic cones, wet-floor signs, and even tables have been known to collide with human flesh during a Hardcore match.
Nobody claims that this is the pinnacle of athletic skill. But Watts is good at this. And, more importantly, he sells it to the crowd. They believe, if only for a couple of minutes, that it's life and death in the ring.
"A lot of the crowd knows it's fake," says wrestler Freddy Franchise, "but they want to see it and they want to believe it. They don't want to see something and say, 'Oh yeah, that's fake.' They want to say, 'Oh man, he's really hitting him.' A lot of our audience is younger kids. They really believe."
"When you're in there, you're thinking of what you're going to do next," Franchise continues. "You're trying to let the other person know what you're thinking. Sometimes you talk to each other a little bit. Basically, you're trying to think of what you're going to do and how you're going to make it look good. And how you're going to make the crowd believe that what you're doing is real."
"You have to get into it to perform your best," Superstar Rob Schulz adds. "You get into it and you go fluid and it's second nature to you. Once in a while, you'll come back to reality. I get scared once in a while. Whenever I forget what I'm supposed to be doing, I choke the guy."
"There's one thing that I'm scared of in every single match," Schulz says. "It's where I have to run from one side of the ring and jump over the ropes. That's what I hurt my arm on. I get scared every single time."
All the same, Schulz says of the move, "That's cool. I like doing it. I land on two or three other guys."
There may be another wrestler with the name "Charisma," but Schulz is the stand-out performer at R.C.W. Built like a straightened-out clothes hanger, with a nasty Uncle Sam goatee and pig tails, he's straight from geek central. But his big, goofy grin and strange mix of ego, clowning, and self-deprecation works against the standard pro wrestling clichés.
"I'm a showman. I like to act," he says. "And that's where I can do it. I put on a show wherever I go."
Along with Huber Boy 2 (don't ask about #1), Schulz and Franchise make up the Roc City Wrecking Crew. "We wreck people and we have all the belts," Schulz says. "We've been here since the beginning. Huber Boy and I are the tallest people."
"We're pretty dominant," Franchise adds.
"Yeah, we are pretty dominant, aren't we?" Schulz agrees.
"We're the top tier," says Franchise.
"Huber Boy 2 and myself are the first triple-crown winners, which means we have the Heavyweight title, the North American title and the tag titles," says Schulz. "We're the only two people in R.C.W. history to do that."
But not everybody is a fan. "My mom hates it," Schulz says. "All our moms hate it. When I went to the hospital, my mom was like, 'Please tell him to stop,' to the doctor."
Schulz and Franchise are considering a cable access TV show. "Our lives are too fun not to share with the Rochester community," Schulz says. "We need to spread it around as much as possible."
Though the word "fun" comes up more often in the wrestlers' talk than "blood" or "pain," some of them have been hurt.
"I broke my foot four minutes into a match," Franchise says. "We had six or seven minutes left to go. So I just had to suck up it and finish the match."
Superstar Schulz hurt his elbow and ended up in the hospital that same night. Big Daddy Watts got six staples in his head after getting whacked with a chair. Concussions and neck strains are quite common.
It's somewhat dangerous, especially if you don't know what you're doing. But R.C.W. has strict guidelines to keep everything relatively safe and on the up-and-up.
Inside the ring, there's no swearing, sexual innuendo, or intentional drawing of blood. And there's even an official Code of Conduct that all the wrestlers must abide by.
Compared to most wrestling feds, R.C. W. is squeaky clean. It's aimed at a family audience. There's a structure in place to punish even minor infractions.
"You get a yellow card for doing bad things," Schulz explains. "One guy got a yellow card for doing a nipple twist. One guys pulled his pants down a little and exposed some crack."
Nonetheless, Schulz has been flirting with the edge lately. "I rub my [ass] cheeks on the opponent. I say, 'This butt's for you.' I call it the Hot Lunch. I don't do it right in the face --- more the upper-chest area."
Franchise, whose schtick includes a lot of pre-match strutting, says, "I do some pelvic thrusting, but not in anyone's face."
Yeah, it's juvenile. Yeah, the scripted feuds are predictable. Yeah, it doesn't exactly play to the most noble impulses in the human heart. But you could say the same thing about a performance of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.
I'm not trying to say that Schulz's epic battle against O.G. Hendrix has the same depth as Shakespeare. At their last match, they actually included a dance contest, with Hendrix decked out in a skull mask and a disco outfit. The Bard didn't depend on powerbombs and Boston crabs and the Texas cloverleaf to keep the groundlings happy.
Still, watching the practice at Samurai Martial Arts reminded me a lot of an amateur theatrical troupe getting ready for the big show. There are huddles where guys go over their moves. There are costume checks and discussions of blocking. There's the pre-show adrenaline buzz.
Who are these guys? According to Commissioner Joe Lynch, most of the R.C.W. crew were backyard wrestlers as kids. Getting a chance to do this in public, in an authentic ring, with a real, live, screaming audience, is a dream come true.
You won't find a lot of future MBAs among R.C.W.'s three dozen wrestlers --- not many pre-meds or pre-laws, either. When I asked one guy if he had a day job, he just shook his head. When I asked if he was in school, I got the same reply. Where does he live? With Mom and Dad, in the basement.
That's not true of everybody. R.C.W. president Sawyer is quite successful running his Samurai Martial Arts School. Joe Lynch is a high school science teacher. Schulz is an undergrad at SUNY Brockport. Damien works as a landscaper, and another wrestler is a counselor for at-risk youth.
Still, there's a delightful flavor of underachievement at R.C.W. doings. A few of these guys will travel to other cities to wrestle (Schenectady has its own fed, too). One or two might have a shot at bigger things, if they bulk up some and really get serious. It doesn't seem likely, however, that anybody from R.C.W. will be on TV (cable access notwithstanding) any time soon.
One of the most respected wrestlers at R.C.W. has been at this for eight years. He goes by about a dozen names: The Canadian Thriller, Chris Cross Funk, Chris Blade, Green Genie. He wrestled with New Millennium (another Rochester fed, now defunct), and has taught some of the younger guys the ropes.
Father Synne did Greco-Roman intramural wrestling in the Marine Corps. He's been with R. C.W. for three years. His age and job and family are a consideration when he thinks about quitting. Certainly, thirty-year-old bodies don't heal as fast as teenagers'. But he's not getting out any time soon.
"The adrenaline rush is overwhelming," he says. "I tried to quit last year, but the fan interaction is very addicting. A fan found out I was thinking about hanging it up and he told me, 'I come to see you.' My following is the bad kids at the back of the class who beat up the honor students."
Father Synne has a clear sense that he's not one of the young guys. "They complain about their parents. We complain about our kids." The screams, the catcalls, the cheers and the booing keep him coming back. And he's carved out a little niche for himself.
"My most notorious move is a rolling head butt to the person's crotch. I call it the Apocalypse Roll, because you know the end is near."
Damien, who calls himself "one of the old timers," puts on his black leather pants and gives a few threatening moves. Then he grins and says, "My knees are shot. My back is shot. But I love doing it." He may never have a chance at the big championship belts that are bought mail order and customized with stick-on letters.
Who will next wear the belts? Tony "The Icepick" Mannero? Jaz, Spaz, or Fusion? Evan McCloud or Kid Justice? Damien or the Canadian Thriller? Mr. Czarniak?
That all depends on the script. Though if the fans scream loud enough, the booking committee might figure it's time for a change at the next "R.C.W. World Championship of the World."
The next Roc City Wrestling extravaganza takes place Friday, June 20, at Samurai Martial Arts, 1512 Spencerport Road, at 6 p.m. Tix: $7. 429-6340.