The WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 759


(New York Daily News, June 29, 2000)

By Michele Greppi

The World Wrestling Federation is ready to rumble throughout a new media empire after a Delaware judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by its current cable home, USA Networks.

Although USA brass sought to downplay the impact of Tuesday's decision, the loss of the WWF to Viacom will take its toll on the network's prime time ratings, as the WWF's Monday showcase consistently ranks as USA's top-rated show.

In turn, the judge's decision was a huge boon to Viacom's TNN, which will be picking up the cable rights this year to pro wrestling's hottest property.

The WWF now can move forward on its wide-ranging programming pact with Viacom, leveraging its success in the wrestling ring into other forms of programming for CBS, UPN, MTV and other channels under the Viacom umbrella.

USA had argued in court that it shouldn't have to stretch to match Viacom's better and broader offer.

The Delaware judge agreed that the USA-WWF contract, which expires in September, "does not contain any obligations to produce specials, theme park events, books or football games" as Viacom offered.

But the judge, Chancellor William Chandler, also noted that USA had chosen not to match the Viacom-CBS offer in very significant ways, such as promoting the WWF on such platforms as radio or billboards or giving the WWF exposure in such territories as the Caribbean or Canada. USA executives had testified they could have done so by going outside the USA family.

Nor, the judge noted, did USA address its pre-emptions of wrestling broadcasts for such programming as the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show and U.S. Open tennis--or, in one case WWF chairman Vince McMahon recalled on the stand, a rain delay at the U.S. Open.

Although no one at Barry Diller's USA was ruling out the possibility of an appeal, USA Cable president Stephen Chao sounded as if he, at least, felt it were time to move on.

"We would have preferred a different decision," Chao's statement said, "but as we said, the loss of the WWF will have a negligible impact on our ratings and a positive effect on our cash flow."

TNN, once known as the Nashville Network, is redefining itself with programming outside its country music base. Under the five-year deal with Viacom, TNN is going to get cable's most-watched series, "Raw Is War," as well as "Livewire" and "Superstars," while sister station MTV gets "Sunday Night Heat."

UPN gets not just an extension for "WWF Smackdown!" the Thursday night wrestling franchise that turned the network around last season, but also Sunday games of the XFL, the extreme football league set for launch in February by WWF and NBC. UPN's deal with the WWF would have expired at the end of the coming season.


(Talk Magazine, June, 2000)

By Liz Wilson

Joanie Laurer was an ungainly girl with an underbite and unlikely ambition. Then she remade herself as Chyna, joined the World Wrestling Federation, and became a star beyond her wildest dreams.

Here she is, a different kind of Miss America. Here she is, the girl no one took to the prom, all grown up, all turned out; jet-black hair, high black boots, tight black turtleneck, leopard-print mini.

The clothes don't make the woman, though. The body does. In heels, she's six-three, about 200 pounds-all muscle, except for the customized breasts, which seem roughly equal to those of the outrageously proportioned Standing Woman, who does her standing here in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In fact, as our girl passes Gaston LaChaise's 1932 Bronze, it occurs that she could kick sand in Standing Woman's face. The museum is crowded. People are checking her out. She's a spectacular mystery to the art students, pale kids with sketchbooks. But the tourists, they've seen her before: on TV, a player in the great American Kabuki.

"Excuse me," says a security guard.

"Yes?" she says sweetly.

"Excuse me," he says again, trying to get up his courage. The guard's days are spent in the presence of Matisse's dancers, Picasso's prostitutes, and Lichtenstein's comic book heroines. But to judge from the look on his face--an adoring expression one might associate with readers of Tiger Beat--he is only coming into the presence of real beauty.

"You're Chyna, aren't you?" he stammers. "I love what you do."

Yes, she is Chyna. Or, as she most likes to describe herself, "an empowered woman who kicks guys in the nuts for a living."

Chyna is a professional wrestler: the right girl at the right time, in the right business.

It is difficult to overstate wrestling's influence on American culture. Wrestling has been on television since the Nielsen family received its first black-and-white set. Wrestling has survived Ralph Kramden, Walter Cronkite, and Johnny Carson. There would be no Muhammad Ali without a wrestler named Gorgeous George. Jesse Ventura was elected governor because of--not despite--his training as a wrestler. Wrestling is easily the most-watched programming on cable. It's the reason a generation of American boys know nothing of Monday Night Football.

The day Chyna showed up at the Museum of Modern Art, two of her World Wrestling Federation co-workers were on the New York Times best-seller list, their biographies moving more briskly than the works of a presidential hopeful, a couple of anchormen, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and the Dalai Lama.

Now, as ever, wrestling nourishes the American desire for bad acting, great stuntmanship, and a brand of vulgarity comnsurate with the age. Today's wrestling personas include pimps and jail guards, vampires and acrobats. But their ancestors are archetypes: bleach-blond heel, barrel-chested Babyface, the Giant, the Midget, and the bikini-clad, hair-pulling girl.

But there has never been a Girl like Chyna. There's never been a wrestler like Chyna. Her persona dispensed with wrestling's last taboo: violence between the sexes. It's one thing to beat up on the guys. It's another to get as good as you give. And people can't seem to get enough.

Chyna dwells in the vortex of American Celebrityhood: on the covers of Newsweek and TV guide, as a guest of Jay Leno and Regis Philbin, with a recurring role on 3rd rock from the sun. The Harpercollins biography is due out soon. "I see myself as Wonder Woman 2000," she says. "Now women who aren't even wrestling fans look at me and go, 'Wow, cool.'"

She's been called wrestling's version of Xena, Warrior Princess, the hit show title character played by Lucy Lawless. This isn't a comparison Chyna particularly likes. All the wrestlers have gimmicks, and she dismisses Xena's as "the pseudo-lesbian thing." Neither Xena nor the actress who plays her took the hits Chyna did growing up.

"When you look at Lucy Lawless," Chyna says, "she's not this muscular woman who would stick out in a crowd like a sore thumb. I am. When I first started, I wasn't cool. I was called beastly and horrible. Chyna didn't just happen overnight. It took years to literally mold this character into this beautiful kick-ass woman."

The metamorphosis of an unhappy girl from upstate New York into Chyna, Wrestling Princess, is heavy with dysfunction, dislocation, and desperate narcissistic desire. "Sometimes I wonder how I ever ended up on the right track," she says. "I've dealt with a lot of problems and rejection in my life. It still affects me. I've reached this pinnacle in my career, but when I look around I'm still very much alone." Big girls do cry.

Joanine Laurer was born 30 years ago in Rochester, New York, the third child in a miserable marriage. "My mom was a nutbag," she says. "My father was an alcoholic."

Family lore has the Laurer union reaching its finale as a Hardcore Match between two heels: Mom and Dad. Mom dropped a plate of spaghetti over Dad's head. Dad stabbed her with a kitchen knife. Dad got out. Mom got custody and, for a few years, public assistance checks.

"Joanie was a very easy kid when she was younger," says her mother, Jan Laque. "I loved her dearly."

"It was always a constant fight, wondering what she was going to be mad about," says Chyna.

Joanie, as she recalls herself, was a big little girl with a severe underbite and an unreasonable ambition to be a movie star. "She liked to dress up and do little skits for the family," says Laque.

"I was always trying to perform," says Chyna. "It was an attention thing."

Joanie felt neglected compared with the miniature schnauzers her mother took to raising her with her new husband. "I think she was better able to show her love for those puppies than for me," Chyna says now.

The dogs were raised in the basement, where the new husband had built a kennel.

"Just a chain-link fence around a bunch of two-by-fours," says Chyna. But it also served as a makeshift wrestling ring. Joanie would watch from the top of the stairs as her older brother and his friends staged matches. The boys would gladly roll around in dog crap just to pretend they were Bruno Sammartino, Sergeant Slaughter, or Killer Kowalski.

"I was to laugh, thinking, ‘There goes my brother, doing his stupid stuff,’" Chyna says.

Stupid or not, wrestling inspired a kind of exuberant amusement rare in Joanie's house. "I remember being very young--must've been in the fourth grade--and my mother taking us to one of those matches at the Rochester War Memorial," Chyna says. "It was very dirty. You could hear the sound of beer sticking to your feet. I don't remember who was wrestling or who was who. But the thing I remember most was my mother's demeanor changing. I remember her being rowdy, yelling and screaming and laughing and having a wonderful time."

That never happened, says Laque. "I never took Joan to wrestling, Wrestling is not my style."

You wonder though, about the emotional grappling between mother and daughter. It intensified as Joanie reached high school. She began as a great student with a facility for languages. She sang in the chorus. She played the cello. She starred in high school productions of Die Fliedermaus and Grease.

Then one day Joanie came home from school and found her mother trying to move in compliance with Jane Fonda's instructions. Joanie figured if her mother could do it, so could she.

If mom did Fonda's aerobic routine once, Joanine did it three times. In repition, she found a kind of recognition, "a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment I wasn't getting anywhere else." Soon her fondness for Fonda became something more intense: a desire that led Joanie to the gym. She stared lifting weights.

As it happened, physical fitness did nothing for her relationship with Mom. Nor did it make her popular. Chyna remembers most kids ignoring the big girl with the underbite. She recalls none of the usual "kid things." She had no boyfriends. She remembers emphatically saying no to drugs.

Of course, Mom remembers different. "She was like a zombie," says Laque. "We didn't know what to do."

So they had a sit-down: Joanie, mom, Mom's new husband, and a psychologist from an outpatient addiction clinic. "One of the things she told us is that she was doing mushrooms, whatever those are," says Laque.

"We just weren't getting along, so my mother's obvious excuse was I must've been a drug addict," Chyna says bitterly. "That was the only reason her daughter could be so aloof and such a nasty girl."

At the psychologist’s recommendation, Joanie went to live with her father and his new wife. Dad had stopped drinking. He could be charming and funny. But Joanie was never quite sure what he did for a living. Sometimes he'd advertise himself as "Dr. Laurer." Occasionally, he'd insert "Von": Dr. Von Laurer. It would have made a great wrestling name.

Once, as the bills started to mount, she remembers her pulled the car over and chucked the keys into the river. He said he was going to Eastern Europe, where, he told his daughter, he would be "teaching people about capitalism."

Meanwhile Joanie kept lifting. Nothing could stop her. Not the kids who called her "Beast." Not the stepmother who asked if she were a lesbian. Sure, she'd go home, close the door, and get a good cry. But then she'd go right back to the gym.

"Why stop?" She asks. "I felt ugly anyway. I didn't have a whole lot of friends. So what did it matter? It wasn't going to make it any better if I stopped. At least in that little gym world there were people who were staring to notice.

"I liked the looks I got. Guys in the gym would see me lifting this ungodly amount of weight. Or maybe they were just looking at my body, and I liked that. The more I lifted, the more people would look at me. You could just tell what they were thinking. 'Oh my god, she's so big. So strong.'"

In those days most girls wanted to look like Olivia Newton-John, or as if they'd stepped out of the movie Flashdance. Not Joanie, though. Suddenly, Chyna says, "I felt unique."

Around this time she met her first "real boyfriend." His name was Ron. He was an alcoholic. They met in AA. Joanie didn't have an alcohol problem herself; she just attended meetings with her stepmother. Dad had convinced her that AA was a perfectly worthwhile interest for a young lady. "Like an extracurricular activity," she says.

Ron was 18. But he wasn't like any of the boys at school. He never issued any cruelties, never called her names. "He had issues of his own," she says. "He had hurt of his own."

Joanie spent her senior year in Madrid, having won a United Nations scholarship for students with special prowess in languages. When she returned to Rochester, Dad told her she'd won another scholarship---this time to the University of Tampa. She remembers his saying he was taking care of everything, "all the paperwork."

"My muffin," he told her, "I knew you could do it." Looking back, Chyna says, "I don't know how he did it." She graduated from Tampa after four relatively happy years. When she wasn't studying, she was working out.

By graduation, she had built the muscular foundation for the character she'd later become. Her financial prospects were less robust. "People started suing me for my student loans," she says.

The problem was, Joanie hadn't known she had any student loans. She says her father never told her.

"She said the student loan money went to me instead of the school," says her father. "I was an investment banker with the VLGP," otherwise known as the Von Laurer Group, an investment firm that secured financing for "developing countries around the world."

When not brokering international deals, Laurer says he took on extra work as a bookkeeper and landscaper to finance his youngest daughter’s education. "Not to mention I did her homework from time to time," he says.

"I don't know where this is coming from," Laurer says when asking about Joanie's portayal of him as a debtor and a con man. "I'm sorry that she's doing all of this. It's something she'll have to deal with later in life. It's going to be physologically devestating later on."

Then Joanie got a call from her older sister Kathy, who was living in New Hampshire. Kathy told Joanie it was time to grow up. Kathy got her sister a job selling beepers and cell phones in Lawrence, Massachusetts. For Joanie it was having great family again. She loved hanging out with her sister. She became one of the best beeper salesmen in the country. But it wasn't enough. The big girl with the underbite still wanted to be a star. She wanted to be on TV. She wanted to be seen.

Joanie started training for the fitness pageants then airing on ESPN. That's how she met Garry Blais—a bodybuilder at World Gym in Londonderry, New Hampshire. He was doing his routine when he spotted Joanie, then a redhead, working on her legs.

"It's a weird feeling I can't put into words," Blais says now. "She just stood out. She had an energy. It radiated off her. I loved her instantly. I loved her inside out: personality, physique, her ambition, her sense of humor."

Joanie liked Blais's sense musculature, his thick black hair, even the gap between this teeth. But more than that, she saw in Blais an expertise she could put to great use. She asked him to train her. He was only too willing. Soon they were living together.

"He just saw something in my body that other people didn't," she says. "Gerry thought I was the coolest thing. I loved the way Gerry loved me. He just cherished me."

Their relationship was a bizarro production of Pygmalion. He taught her how to eat, how to carry herself, and how to get really big. Joanie was 155 pounds when they met. Blais's method would add 30 pounds of muscle. It wasn't the look fitness pageants wanting. She even received a letter to that effect.

"Just to piss 'em off, I'll get bigger." That's what Blais remembers her saying. Then, as Joanie prepared a belly-dance routine for the next contest, she asked "Why do you think they'll remember: the bimbo blondes bouncing around to the Mortal Kombat soundtrack or to the freaky 185-pound redhead with a sword dancing to Arabic music?"

She didn't win. She didn't even place. "She didn't care," says Blais. "She was noticed."

Her urge to perform could not be discouraged. She even got a did doing singing telegrams. "I would have these panic attacks, like, My time is running out," she says. "I was supposed to be a star."

She would come home, dead tired, thinking, I can't continue selling beepers. On one of those nights Kathy and her fiance were on the sofa eating frozen yogurt. It was just after 9PM on a Monday. The WWF's Raw is War was on the USA network. It wasn't the kind of wrestling Joanie remembered from the Rochester War Memorial. This was show business.

Joanie and Kathy started goofing around, pretending to pull each others' hair. But inside, Joanie couldn't have been more serious. "That was it," she says. "I was going to be a wrestler."

All those years after watching her brother roll around the miniature schnauzer pen, she found the real Killer Kowalski. He ran a wrestling school in Malden, Massachusetts, renting space from a martial arts school. Kowalski, now 73, is a devout vegetarian with cauliflower ears. He stands six-eleven, still close to his 285-pound fighting weight. (ED. NOTE – Don’t, DO NOT, believe everything you read.)

"Make 'em notice you." That's the first commandment at Killer Kowalski's Institute of Professional wrestling. Joanie was noticed the moment she walked in. There were only a couple of women students, and nobody had seen an aspiring girl quite like Joanie, whose rapidly increasing dimensions spoke highly of Blais's training methods.

"She was so big," Says Kowalski. "I figured she'd be a heel."

"Protruding jaw, flat-chested, she wasn't a Playboy bunny," says Richard Byrne, who runs the martial arts school and promotes his own independent wrestling shows. "I told her, 'You've got something nobody else has- a look. Play up the gimmick you have.'"

She had a hook, but more than that, a supremely diligent desire. She broke her tailbone, a forearm, a rib, her nose. She kept coming back for more. "I would clothesline guys until my arms were black and blue," she remembers.

"Joanie would try anything," says Kowalski. "She learned quickly. Very athletic."

"I saw myself as this super heroish female with muscles," she says.

Joanie Lee, as she now called herself, made her debut as part of a mixed tag team in a high school gym—part of an independent circuit whose venues included various middle schools, armories, and the IBEW hall in Waltham, Massachusetts. She made $25. There couldn't have been more than 100 people in the crowd.

"I wore a pink bathing suit," she remembers. "I went to the fabric store and got this silver sequined thing and I sewed it around my waist. I was so nervous and so excited I couldn't hear anything. Such an adrenaline rush."

"You can hear the crowd pop as soon as she comes to the ring," says Steve King, her tag-team partner that night. "The way she was slapping people's hands during the entrance, they just seemed to respond to her. She wasn't the average woman wrestler that had big fake breasts. A lot of girls try to get away with doing wedgies and hair pulling and crap like that. But she actually got in the ring and worked."

In wrestling parlance, Joanie had "gotten over"-- she had connected with the crowd. Everything that made her an outcast in real life made her a natural in the ring. "She walks down the street and people have to look twice," says King, whose fiance Theresa was Joanie's opponent that first night at Middleboro High School. The two women became close. before the wedding, King recalls, Joanie walked through the Burlington Mall to meet other bridesmaids. "Everyone's head turned," he says. "People were stopping her, saying 'I know you from somewhere.'"

As Chyna looks back on Joanie's apprenticeship, she says: "For most of those people it was like an extension of being a fan. For me it was that I was going to be a star. No doubt in my mind. This was just one of the things I had to do to get there."

So were the "cheesy videotapes" and portfolios she made, those advertisements for herself she would FedEx and fax to booking agents at the World Wrestling Federation, World Championship wrestling, and Extreme Championship Wrestling. "I had to sell myself," she says.

The real selling, however, she did in person. In the autumn of '96, she got into her Dodge Stealth and drove down to a World Wrestling Federation show in Springfield, Massachusetts. She was wearing four-inch heels and a Victoria's secret catsuit, the sleeves of which had been cut off to better display her ample 14-and-a-half inch arms.

There was a ticket for her at the gate. She sat way up in the nosebleed section. The road agent was supposed to come get Joanie for an interview during the show. "I finally get my shot, and he stands me up," Chyna says.

She remembers being the last spectator to leave the arena. She was holding her portfolio. She felt like crying. Somebody selling WWF T-shirts told her the wrestlers were staying at the Holiday Inn in Hartford. She didn't want to look like another ring rat, a wrestling groupie. But she hadn't driven all the way from New Hampshire to get stood up, either.

Forty-five minutes later Joanie was in the Holiday Inn lobby, talking on the house phone. "I'm here," she said. "Can you come down and have a cup of coffee with me?"

Joanie waited for the road agent at the bar. It was about 1:30 a.m. The wrestlers were dead tired. Finally, the road agent appeared, ordered a beer. Joanie went through her portfolio, telling him how she lifted and wrestled, and he tried to be polite, asking if she was hungry.

Two off-duty blond Heels dropped by their table. The road agent introduced them by their ring names: Shawn Michaels, whose persona was acrobatic and obnoxious, and Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who was muscle-bound and obnoxious.

"Oh, you're Hunter," said Joanie. "You trained with Walter Kowalski, didn't you?"

As first lines go, that was a first. Before long, Shawn and Hunter and Joanie were sitting at the same table talking wrestling. Hunter needed some kind of manager or valet to get him over with the crowd.

"Look at her," said Shawn, marveling at Joanie's superhero build. "She'd make a great bodyguard."

Joanie understood immediately. "The first female bodyguard," she said. "Very cool."

She was going to be a star. She just had to work out the details. One of which was Blais. One night around this time, she came home and told him, "I don't love you anymore."

Joanie told him to get his stuff. She was crying as he started packing. But Blais was crying more. "It was very cruel," Chyna says. "I didn't care what the hell it took," Chyna says.

Three years later, Chyna's table at Sette overlooks the MoMA scuplture garden. She's nursing a glass of Merlot, talking about her breasts. "I've always wanted them," she says. "They were the one thing on my body I couldn't develop."

As it happened, a regular C-cup didn't look right. She was too broad. So, after she broke an implant clotheslining some poor bastard in the ring, Chyna went to the doctor and got fitted for a custom job. The doctor was "a sweetheart." Chyna got him ringside seats.

Then there's the jaw. It's not what she started with either. "The boobs I wanted to do, to add that femininity. The facial stuff I had to do. I had reconstructive surgery because of a terrible underbite. As I got older it became more pronounced. I've been teased about my jaw from the time I was a little girl. The surgery changed the complete structure of my face, which I'm thrilled about."

This very afternoon she plans a makeup-buying spree at Saks. "Above all, I'm a woman," she says. "I like to wear makeup and do my hair and wear pretty clothing, even thought I can't find anything to fit me."

Suddenly this sounds like another celebrity interview. Chyna sips her merlot and frets. She doesn't want to be seen as a hypocrite. "I worked so hard to get this unique body," she says. "I'm telling women, 'It's okay to be different, you don't have to be that stereotypical beauty--and there I go and get jaw surgery.'"

Then again, surgery is to be expected, as is the occasional hypocrisy. She's a star now.

She took the name Chyna only because it sounded less hokey than Venus or Sheera. The name probably didn't matter much anyways. The female bodyguard gimmick was that good.

"My job," she says, "was to make people hate me."

As Joanie, she had moved in with Paul Levesque, aka Hunter Hearst Helmsley. As Chyna, she appeared as Helmsley's leather-clad bodyguard, a female Mad Max character. Her signature move -- "the great balls of Chyna"--was a sneak attack attack directed at the privates of Helmsley's opponent. She used an actor's method in delivering the blow, imagining all those who had called her a Beast. Infact, Chyna heard the crowd buzz with the same cruel remarks she'd heard as Joanie. She was getting over huge. Chyna was a new king of Heel.

"It helped my career and it helped his," she says, referring to Helmsley. "It put a lot of focus on him, started getting him noticed, this unique thing we were doing: a woman who was beating up the guys."

After a while Chyna had delivered of her typically low blows for audiences to accept the idea of guys hitting her back. "Instead of looking on the guys as wife-beating monsters," she says, "They'd say, 'She finally got what she deserved.'"

Another sip of merlot. "Now people don't feel sorry for me when I get hit," she says perkily. It's equal-opportunity ass-kicking.

All that is bad for standards and practices is great for the WWF. Chyna's star persona only got bigger: a muscle-bound dominatrix leavening her character with a kind of surgically enhanced sexuality. "I always had that in me," she says.

Meanwhile, Helmsley--now known as Triple H--became the WWF champ. He is a great heel, now immersed in an "angle" that has him married to Stephanie McMahon, the actual daughter of WWF owner Vince McMahon. Though story lines for Chyna and Triple H have long since diverged, Joanie and Paul still live together.

"It's a double standard," she says. She's talking about marriage, in particular the prospective betrothal of Joanie and Paul. "I'd like to marry him, but I don't think the feeling is mutual." she says. "He sees me venturing off and not being home for two months and he starts to wonder: 'She's not the mommy type.'"

Joanine speaks dreamingly of bringing her imagined child to Smackdown! or Raw. "Like Madonna or Rosie O'Donnell or Pamela Anderson Lee carting their babies on the set," she says. "I think that's, like, the coolest thing."

She wants to be a mother, though she hasn't seen her own in 14 years.

"I see Joanie on television," says Laque. "I see a woman who's hidden behind all this. Deep down inside, I think she'd like to have some sort of home base. There's just something about her eyes."

For all of Chyna's villainous cool, Joanie has yet to assimilate in celebrity culture. She's still a fan. Last year she went to the Emmy's, her belated senior prom. She wore a sequin-studded leather dress. "A hard shell molded to my body," she says. "They literally baked it on me.

You pull up in this limo," she says. "There's like tons of limos, a huge line. And you get out and look over to the right and there's these big bleachers, with all these media people with cameras, screaming at the stars. And you look around and there's all these stars, all these people you see on TV and read about in the tabloids."

"There's Calista Flockhart and Lara Flynn Boyle, each about the size of Chyna's right leg. Then there's Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband, Matthew Broderick.

He steps on Chyna's foot. "Hey," she says, teasing. "You stepped on my foot."


"You just stepped on my foot."

"Oh," he says, turning away.

Chyna taps him on the shoulder. She's in character now. "You stepped on my foot."

"I'm sorry."

"Well, don't do it again."

That look on Broderick's face still makes her giggle. "Bug-eyes, scared," she says. "I mean, he's like this little peanut of a guy."

Later that night, Parker confronts her in the bathroom.

"You know, you really scared the pants off my husband."

"I was just joking."

What a great night. "I felt like the belle of the ball," says Joanie.

Mr. Blackwell put her number one on his worst-dressed list. "I wanted to tell him, 'Fuck off. I have like 40 wrestlers who would beat you up.'"

Gerry Blais couldn't miss Chyna's debut as a comic actress. The TV in the juice bar at the gym he now manages is tuned to 3rd Rock.

"He did a great job," he says afterward. "She always does. She's smart. She'll plan it all out, how to get from point A to B...I always knew, from the minute I met her, that she was destined to be a star."

He recalls that meeting in excruciating detail. He recalls the breakup, too--Joanie telling him to pack his stuff, that she didn't love him anymore. "Most devastating day of my life," he says. "I was saving for a ring...It took me so long to get over her, about three years...almost ruined everything in my life... I kept on begging her...I lived in a lot of confusion because I never got any closure from her...I never really got a reason...."

When reminded of Joanie's ambition, he says, "But I was happy." Then, suddenly, he sounds a note of apology. "I should've been more ambitious," he agrees.

Blais sees the wrestling shows, of course. "I try not to, out of respect for my current girlfriend," he says, "but I still do."

You wonder: Does Blais mourn the girl who left him, or the girl that that girl became? "People used to make fun of her big jaw and her nose and accuse her of being on steroids, which wasn't true," he says. "But I loved everything about her."

Chances are, Blais will be watching the next time Chyna kicks some guy in the nuts. He'll be one of millions.

"It’s good to know she still thinks about me," he says.

The WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 760



By John Rabe, February 5, 1999

A new book by Garrison Keillor is causing a stir long before the first copy hits the bookstores. It's a rags-to-riches story about a former pro-wrestler who becomes governor of Minnesota. Sound familiar? The object of Keillor's parody is not thrilled with the idea.

In Keillor’s last book, Wobegon Boy, the creator of A Prairie Home Companion savaged public radio talk shows. This time, he's picked a different target. The book is called ME, by Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente, As Told to Garrison Keillor.

Keillor: This is a work of satire that is not shooting the wounded. This is a work of satire about someone who is riding high at this point. That's who satire is supposed to go after.

In the book, Keillor says, Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente is an orphan adopted by Lutherans who transforms himself by weightlifting, changes his name, and joins the Navy WALRUSes, which stands for "Water, Air, Land Rising Up Suddenly". He takes up professional wrestling. But, after a while, his back hurts, and he's tired of the wrestling life.

Keillor: He's approached by a man from The Ethical Party who wants him to run for governor, and it's such a beautiful idea to get vindication after having earned your living as an adult wearing pink boas and spangly-tights and creating the role of a jerk to make immense crowds of people angry at you. He wants respect, and this is a way to get it.

Keillor started writing the book just after the election, amazed and inspired by how Ventura used the Jesse "The Body" wrestling character to run for governor, it's a character Keillor says was at the heart of Ventura's radio persona, too.

An article in yesterday's tabloid New York Post said Keillor was delivering a body slam to Ventura, but Keillor denies that characterization:

Keillor: It's not an attack at all. I rather like the governor. I think he is in the course of discovering himself in public and figuring out who he is, and he successfully shed a lot of his rough edges while still holding onto his essential outlook and view of life.

For his part, Ventura told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press newspaper he's upset that Keillor wrote a book based on him without his permission. "To me that's cheating," the governor said. Even though he's governor and an undeniable public figure, Ventura has repeatedly claimed that he has rights to his name and image. He's also mad about unauthorized t-shirts and a television movie.

But last night Ventura told Minnesota Public Radio he really isn't mad at Keillor:

Ventura: I could care less. He's an artistic person and very successful at what he does, and he makes Minnesota proud, you know. I have no problem.

And in his interview yesterday, Keillor was equally magnanimous:

Keillor: This man is not a shallow or dense person, and isn't portrayed as such in this book. This is not a book about a dummy. He's not a dummy. He's very smart.

Garrison Keillor's book will arrive in bookstores at least three months before Ventura's own ghost-written memoir, I Ain't Got Time To Bleed. The governor is reportedly going to be paid up to $500,000 for his book. Keillor says he'll sign a copy of the Big Boy Valente book and send it over to the governor. But will Ventura read it?

Ventura: No. I'm writing my own. The real version. He's entitled, I guess, to do it. Does he know enough about it, though?

Keillor's research included watching Jesse "The Body" highlight tapes, and he apparently knew enough to write a piece for Time magazine, expertly assessing Ventura's appeal to a "jaded, repressed, Scandinavian" public.

"Sometimes we like to surprise ourselves," he writes in Time. "Minnesota is a $12 billion a year operation and we have taken the janitor and made him chief executive officer."

That line still rankles the governor.

Ventura: I have nothing against him, but he made a statement after the election, something to the effect they put the janitor in charge of the corporation. And so, being a good Navy SEAL, I don't get mad, I get even.

The dispute over Keillor's book isn't the first time Ventura's taken a poke at Keillor and vice versa. On Monday, at a

Minnesota Public Radio forum on the state budget, a member of the audience asked why Ventura proposed eliminating funding for public broadcasting.

Here's an exchange including Ventura, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, and Minnesota Public Radio's Gary Eichten.

Ventura: And there are a lot of people in public radio making very large sums of money.
Moe: Is that true, Gary?
Eichten: Oh yeah. (audience laughs)
Ventura: Well, I bet you could ask Garrison Keillor. I'd like to see his W-2.

The budget forum exchange happened just two days after a new skit aired on A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor, playing detective Guy Noir, is visited by Governor Ventura, played by Tim Russell.

Keillor: How you doin', governor?
Russell: Oh this governor thing is wearing me out.
Keillor:: Yeah.
Russell: Let me tell you. I only been in for ...
Keillor:You look kind of tired.
Rusell: I am. Three weeks and I need a vacation. The stuff you got to read; pages and pages and pages of all this budget crap. You're supposed to do what? Make recommendations or something? I don't get it. I read one page and I'm like get me out of here. Borrrring. ....

For the record, Keillor, now an independent contractor and no longer an employee of Minnesota Public Radio, does make a large, undisclosed sum of money. He is also a major donor to MPR and has dedicated half the royalties for two previous books to the network, although there's no such arrangement with the Valente book. He admits that Ventura's election is a huge gift for Minnesota humorists, and it's hard to miss the implications when Keillor says everyone wants to talk about Ventura, and read about him.

Readers get their chance soon. Keillor's parody of Ventura is due out at the end of this month, Ventura's version comes out in June. And the two Minnesota institutions may be battling it out again on the bestseller lists this summer.



ST. PAUL, March 13, 1999 -- When Minnesota elected a shaven-headed bone-crusher from the wild world of show wrestling to be its governor, it was a safe bet that another celebrated son of Minnesota would soon be taking up pen and paper to help us make sense of it.

It didn't take long. Just four months later, "Me, by Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente, as told to Garrison Keillor," offers an uproarious take on the wrestler-as-governor phenomenon.

But wait a minute. Who is this Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente? Isn't the new governor's name Jesse (The Body) Ventura? And he didn't really fire sweat-seeking cruise missiles into the ring, did he? Or toss an 8-foot grizzly bear into the front row?

Of course not. This slim volume comes with an author's note that it is "political satire," and "should not be construed in any way as an autobiography of an actual governor of Minnesota, God bless him."

Ventura was initially peeved about the 152-page book, complaining that Keillor misused his image for commercial gain. But he has since eased up, and if he ever decides to run for president, Keillor's spoof could easily serve as campaign material.

After all, it portrays a man with everything it takes to get into the White House -- humble origins, patriotism, combat duty in Vietnam, devoted husband, honest entrepreneur, straight talker ...

So what if he weighs 250 pounds with his head shaven, drives large motorcycles and used to wear feathers and tights and jump up and down on people for a living? None of this should prevent him being elected president next year, Keillor said in an interview.

Then again, this is Garrison Keiller talking -- the radio storyteller who invented Lake Wobegon  and convinced millions of readers worldwide that it was real; the author of "We Are Still Married," a tale that almost makes us believe that an obscure bus driver's marital difficulties could result in a People magazine cover story, Congressional hearings and intervention by the pope.

So when he says Jesse Ventura is presidential material, you can't help wondering whether it's just Keillor still being satirical.

Not at all, insists the honeyed voice rolling down the phone line from Keillor's office in St. Paul, each sentence measured out in handpicked words and tantalizing pauses.

"I think this man can run for president and win in 2000. He talks the talk. He has a persona that is unlike anybody else's. Other politicians ... all come off as insurance agents -- sort of mildly affable, positive-thinking, inoffensive, smiling, vaguely intelligent white men, in their 50s, in maybe blue suits and white shirts and" (pause) "dark blue ties with" (pause) "red" (pause) "dots."

"And this man, the moment he walks into a room he's the leading man. He's a walking photo opportunity. ... But when he talks, he's brighter than you expect him to be for a 6-foot-4-inch man who shaves his head and talks in a steroid growl. He talks in whole sentences and says some things that make sense."

When the country is peaceful and prosperous, politics falls into a trough and people stop crying out for leadership, Keillor explains. Then government "becomes a sort of immense insurance company. You pay your premium in April and you buy a little insurance against disaster which you don't think you'll ever really need. ... And it doesn't really matter who's running things and so people are free to elect an entertainer. What harm can he do?"

It may all be academic. Ventura says he has no immediate presidential ambitions, and a national poll commissioned by a Minneapolis TV station said 57 percent didn't want him to run, against 34 percent who said go for it.

Keillor says he has never met, nor tried to meet, Ventura, and seems to have mixed feelings about him. "I don't begrudge the man his success," he says. "I think he's very interesting." But "he's very stubborn, he's quite self-infatuated and he makes enemies unnecessarily."

But enough about reality. The Valente of Keillor's imagination is an entirely self-made man -- a foster child and 98-pound weakling who toughens himself enough to qualify for the elite WALRUS (Water Air Land Rising Up Suddenly) force and draw a stint in Vietnam. There, within 24 hours he is ripping the bolts off tank treads and hurling them into the cockpits of strafing enemy planes, which turns out to be good practice for the mayhem that awaits him on the pro-wrestling circuit.

Here Keillor's satirical vision really starts firing on all cylinders. Fighters get thrown into dumpsters and blown up, or crushed under 20-wheel monster trucks. The Widowmaker feeds opponents into a wood-chipper. Brent Beige the yuppie sits in the ring whining to his hair stylist on a cell phone while the crowd bays for his blood. Vicious Eddie the Mohawk Kid has "a zipper implanted in his cheek which he unzipped so everyone could see the food in his mouth."

"I was the first wrestler," Valente boasts, "to employ SWEAT-SEEKING CRUISE MISSILES in the ring. ... A flash of flame and big mushroom clouds and when the smoke cleared, my tormentor was burnt toast and I stood, bloodied but victorious in the crisscrossing spotlights."

Where did Keillor GET this stuff? From watching Ventura's videotaped highlights, he says. "It's not that difficult to understand."

Anyway, retired from wrestling, "Big Boy" looks at politics and senses a vacuum.

He sees the Democrats as the party with "programs for everything -- programs to combat grumpiness, stupidity, discrimination, covetousness, improper lane changes, low math scores, flat beer, poor taste, too much air in the Cracker Jack box, and all of the programs require battalions of social workers and reams of paper."

But the Republicans are equally unattractive: "Squeeze the maximum profit out of everything, strip it clean, gouge what you can, clear-cut the forest, ... lay off the 20-year guys and hire cheap replacements, cut costs, inflate the stock, sell out, make your pile, leave town, ... and feel no more remorse than a fruit fly."

So he joins the Ethical Party, "a grab bag of bikers and bird-watchers and disgruntled dishwashers and surly seniors and people who call in to talk shows to ... (complain) about the mailman."

And the rest is history. The book ends with "Big Boy" confidently outlining his strategy for capturing the White House.

Ventura -- the real deal -- has said he's too busy governing Minnesota to consider a presidential run in 2000. And in 2004? He says anything's possible.

But Keillor says it's 2000 or never. "He'd be a fool to wait until 2004," he says.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers, March 28, 1999)

By Robert Schmuhl

At a time when anything goes and absurdity is ascendant, the marriage of politics and pro wrestling assumes a certain harmonic logic. Nowadays both callings require asbestos-lined egos, savvy handlers, the stomach to take a punch, a flair for the dramatic and carefully scripted conduct.

Winning and losing take a back seat to the continuing show and how it plays with the crowd watching. The election in November of Jesse (The Body) Ventura as Minnesota's governor consummated the union of politickin' and rasslin' with a force that's kept the body politic in that state and elsewhere reeling. What does the future hold, and (more grippingly) which hold will the governor affect to achieve results?

With such local color in profusion, to expect Minnesota's best-known humorist, Garrison Keillor, to remain silent would be as foolish as thinking Bill Clinton will ever unburden his soul with a tell-all autobiography.

In "Me: By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente as told to Garrison Keillor," Ventura's life (Navy SEAL, wrestler, rock-group bodyguard, radio host, mayor and governor) serves as the inspiration for a slight yet side-splitting satire that skewers not only its self-absorbed subject but everything else it singles out for sarcasm.

Keillor makes himself the butt of several jokes in this scattershot send-up. Although billed on its cover as "a political satire," "Me" is more of a mock memoir. After scandal-hungry political reporters unearth the new governor's illegitimate birth and subsequent adoption, he decides to tell his story.

Predictably, he overcomes youthful hardships as picked-on weakling Clifford Oxnard. High school student Clifford responds to a body-building ad. Within a few months, he has a new body: "From dork to hunk."

Physically and psychologically reborn, he changes his name to Jimmy Valente and enlists in the Navy to become a WALRUS (Water Air Land Rising Up Suddenly). Derring-do in Vietnam whets his appetite for action, leading to a career in pro wrestling.

Keillor devotes page after page to the melodramatic mayhem of a "sport" that is more accurately understood as steroid-enhanced stunt acting with attitude. But the raucous spectacle allows the dry, understated humorist of "Lake Wobegon Days" and the radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" to shift to tall-tale mode in chronicling Big Boy's ring adventures. The rendering of one battle offers a sample of the unrestrained approach:

"One night in the Boston Garden, Hump Hooley and I fought a marathon tag-team match against The Messenger of Death and Mr. Disaster, a real butt-burner involving quarts of blood, thousands of vampire bats, a pack of rabid wolves, six suicide bombers from Hamas, and 12 Tomahawk missiles, and in the finale I hoisted The Messenger over my head and heaved him into the turnbuckle only to have him ignite a moat of gasoline around the ring."

As Big Boy ages, suffers from "a nasty case of testosterone poisoning" and starts to get "numb above the neck," he listens to the entreaties of Earl Woofner, chairman of the Ethical Party in Minnesota, about running for governor – and wins in a cakewalk. Beyond the broad-shouldered bravado and buffoonery of this satire a clef lurks commentary about contemporary America with a deceptively clever punch.


(Time Magazine, November 16, 1998)

By Garrison Keillor

Georgia had Lester Maddox and Louisiana had Earl Long, and now Minnesota has gone and got an interesting Governor of our own: a pro wrestler with a shaved head and a bad-boy swagger whose voice is hoarse from bellowing at opponents and threatening to rip their arms from their sockets. He was the protest candidate, a chance to throw toilet paper in the trees and piss off Dad, nobody dreaming he would actually be elected. But in a three-way race the ball takes funny bounces, and that is how Minnesota got a 6 ft. 4 in., 250-lb. Governor named Jesse ("The Body") Ventura, and all week Minnesotans were feeling sort of giddy about it, like Lutherans who've drunk a little more than we meant to and now here we are singing Alley Oop and dancing on the sofa. Who woulda thunk we could get this crazy?

"Rest assured. You got the most exciting Governor in the United States," Jesse announced afterward in his alpha-male voice to all of us turkey necks. He uses the phrase "rest assured" a lot, and when he wants to sound official he says, "At this point in time." He loves to talk and does it stream-of-consciousness style, segueing suddenly, coming back to his basic reference points, which are pro wrestling, talk radio and the Navy SEALS. He doesn't automatically shut off, reporters have discovered.

He ran a smart race, snarled, boasted, was entertaining, campaigned in a sweatshirt ("Retaliate in '98"), sat in on the televised debates with his two opponents (who didn't bother to mess with him), kept saying he was no politician and expressed himself more bluntly than had been customary in Minnesota politics. He cussed a little. He was vaguely outrageous, the right thing to be when you're running against two suits.

The Republican and the Democrat were perfect fall guys for him. The Republican was an ex-Democrat and glibness on wheels, and his big smile looked as if he'd worked on it all summer. The Democrat reminded you of your classic, cheerfully clueless high school principal. Both of them had that tendency common to career politicians of putting their mouths into gear with their minds only partly engaged. They blathered. This made Jesse look like Abe Lincoln.

People were grateful for the diversion, and of course politics is pretty much debased this year anyway. When the farm economy is tanking and meanwhile Washington is in the thralls of sexual obsession, and Congress is dormant until late October when it produces a $500 billion spending bill that is passed unread and undebated, then what exactly is the objection to Jesse ("The Body") Ventura?

He glided in under the political radar. Right up to about 10 o'clock on election night the local press treated him like a cartoon character. It wasn't reported until later, for example, that Ventura is his stage name, that his legal name is James Janos--a small detail, but Minnesotans had never elected a pseudonym before. He mused about the death penalty and legal prostitution, which are not winning issues here except among drunks, but nobody held it against him. He likened the war on drugs to Prohibition and called it a failure. People let that one go, too.

So, late on election night, the suits are up in their suites, brooding and trying to look confident, waiting for the Glocca Morra vote to roll in and save them, and Jesse is strutting tall turkey at his campaign headquarters at the racetrack, looking like everyone's nightmare of a brother-in-law, shaking his big fist, yelling, "We shocked the world!" and comparing himself to Muhammad Ali and the U.S. Olympic hockey team of 1980 that beat the Russians. All across Minnesota, the quiet, decent people who believe in Good Government and Working Together to Resolve Differences are leaning forward in disbelief at the thought that the next Governor of their state might be THIS GREAT BIG HONKING BULLET-HEADED SHOVEL-FACED MUTHA WHO TALKS IN A STEROID GROWL AND DOESN'T STOP. And then he won.

Well. We are a state of highly repressed Scandinavians, and sometimes we like to surprise ourselves. Minnesota is a $12 billion-a-year operation, and we have taken the janitor and made him the CEO, but hey. Now we have the inauguration to look forward to. He promised to be lowered by helicopter to the capitol dome and rappel down the side of the building, and that would sure be something to see. Meanwhile, everybody in Minnesota can do a pretty good Jesse imitation. A good way to start the winter.

The WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 761


(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 4, 1998)

By Richard Borreca

You have to love anything that can serve up both the art treasures of the Louvre or actual audio recordings from professional wrestling in Hawaii.

Any Internet amateur can direct you to an online tour of the Louvre (, but hearing Lord Blears interview Sammy Steamboat -- that's culture on another level.

That and more is only a body slam away if you stomp over to

The audio files are small enough that you can download and listen over and over to Ed Francis introducing the Steamboat.

"Home on the Web" is a weekly Friday feature of the Star-Bulletin. Richard Borreca can be reached by e-mail at


(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 6, 1998)

By Dave Donnelly

Now retired and living in Makaha, pro wrestler Lord James "Tallyho" Blears was understandably miffed when a recent Los Angeles story about wrestling's golden age in the late '40s and '50s neglected to mention him or other Brit wrestlers. "They had Gorgeous George and the others, and we took all of them down to the mat at the time," says Blears. But the former grappler did have his horrific World War II experiences. He was one of five survivors of a cargo ship crew massacred by the Japanese after capture -- recounted in detail in Bernard Edwards' "Blood and Bushido." The book was published recently by Break Tower Press and picked up by Doubleday's Military Book Club.


(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 19, 1998)

By Helen Altonn

Sam "Steamboat" Mokuahi Sr., 80, who created lifelong memories of Waikiki Beach for countless visitors and children, died Tuesday.

He was a legend -- one of the last great oldtime surfers, lifeguards and beachboys. His many years of service earned him the unofficial title, "Mayor of Waikiki."

Big, strong and bronzed from a life in the sun until well in his 70s, Mokuahi had a gentle heart and befriended people from all over the world, family and friends said today.

He had supporting roles in several films made in Hawaii, such as "The Old Man and the Sea," and took folks like actors David Niven and Alan Ladd canoe-riding.

"He was a perfect gentleman," Ken "Squirrel" Carvalho recalled today. "He called everybody 'laddy -- laddy boy.' He danced hula at my wedding."

Harry S. Robello said, "We were buddy-buddy when he first came on the beach, way back, right after the (Second World) War. He started as a lifeguard and ended up a beachboy. He did everything -- surfboard, steer canoe."

Mokuahi once explained that he got the name "Steamboat" because his great-great-great-grandfather was born on a steamship coming to Hawaii. "My grandmother translated the name into Hawaiian, which is Mokuahi," he said.

All those who carry the Mokuahi name are proud of it, whether they are hanai or blood-related, said Mokuahi's nephew, Kevin Mokuahi, Lokahi Canoe Club coach. He said his uncle "made everybody feel like family."

Mokuahi was born in Honolulu and taught himself to surf as a child at Kakaako when ironing boards were used as surfboards. He started surfing at Waikiki about 1932 or 1933.

He looked out for kids, standing on the reef and pushing them off on their surfboards, his nephew said. "He used to yell, 'Stand up! Stand up!'"

In those days, Kevin Mokuahi said, his uncle would cut a piece of plywood and tell kids, "Here, take this out and catch some waves." The "piper board," as kids called it then, was the forerunner of the boogie board and much more difficult to use, he said.

He said his uncle's Waikiki hangout was mostly in front of Duke Kahanamoku's in the Outrigger Canoe Club -- where canoes will gather at 8:30 a.m. June 27 to scatter his ashes.

"Most of the oldtimers came from Kuhio Beach," Carvalho said. "We used to go diving over there, catch fish, drink on the beach. Nobody bothered us. On Christmas Eve we had races (climbing coconut trees). We had so much fun. "

They also saved a lot of lives because they were in the water and could get to people fast, Carvalho said.

Although his uncle had a business, he was always giving people surfboards because he wanted them to enjoy the ocean, said his nephew, Kevin Mokuahi.

"If they had no money, he'd say, 'Take the board out and bring it back.' That's how nice a guy he was.' He was a man with a lot of aloha."


(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 26, 1999)

By Dave Donnelly

There was much giving of thanks yesterday at the home of Lord "Tally Ho" Blears and his wife. He'd just been informed that his grandson, Dylan Ching, of the University of San Diego, had been invited to play in the Hula Bowl on his home island of Maui. Dylan, a Kamehameha grad, holds every wide-receiver record in San Diego history, and will get his degree in business administration in the spring. He's the son of former world surf champ Laura Blears Ching, still a physical specimen to be dealt with though she's considerably older than when she appeared in Playboy before Dylan was born. Grandma is further evidence of the Blears family's deep gene pool. She still teaches an aerobics class for women even though she's 81 and was born during World War I. One sad note: The ashes of Dylan's dad, Bon Ching, were scattered at sea just last Sunday. He died without knowing of his son's good fortune.


(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 29, 1999)

By Rod Ohira

A generation of Hawaii television viewers in the Sixties and Seventies spent Saturday afternoons watching "Live Big Time Wrestling."

Promoter Ed Francis and Lord "Tallyho" Blears helped make the program the highest rated locally-produced television show in Hawaii.

"There was entertainment value beyond just watching it," said John Alejado, 48, of Pearl City. "Afterwards, we'd go outside and try out some of the moves and get into role playing, imitating the voices."

Curtis "The Bull" Iaukea, "Handsome" Johnny Barend, Leroy "Ripper" Collins, Chief Billy White Wolf, "Gentleman" Jim Hady and "The Missing Link" Pampero Firpo were the promotion's wrestling stars.

Scott Werkmeister, 40, of Kaimuki became a wrestling fan when he was 5 years old.

Werkmeister never missed the 3:30 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 p.m. Friday TV wrestling programs, and attended matches at the old Civic Auditorium on King Street with his grandmother, Matsuko Takesue.

When the Civic was torn down, matches were staged at the Blaisdell Arena.

"The old Civic was 100 times better than Blaisdell," Werkmeister said. "Even if you were in the highest seat, you felt close to the action.

"You couldn't see blood on black-and-white TV. I was in the fourth grade the first time I saw a wrestler bleed. It was a chain match between Billy White Wolf and Curtis Iaukea. I went, wow, this has to be real."

Barend was Alejado's favorite character during the often outrageous television locker room interview segments.

"He wore sunglasses and was, in a sense, an enigma," Alejado said. "He'd really get into his roles.

"Curtis' big splash and the Masked Executioner's claw hold were the best (finishing holds)."

Alejado was strictly a TV wrestling fan, but Werkmeister enjoyed TV and Wednesday cards.

"If they didn't do the TV, I don't think they would have had the big crowds at the Civic," said Werkmeister, who estimates between 2,000 and 3,000 people regularly attended weekly Wednesday night matches at the Civic.


(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 13, 2000)

By Rod Ohira

Aerobics instructor Lee Blears wraps up a 90-minute session with stretching exercises, some humor and a thought for the day.

"Must be jelly because jam doesn't shake like that," she tells her class, drawing smiles.

As a parting thought, she says, "A kind word never gets lost. It goes person to person and finally gets back to you."

If it sounds like the wisdom that comes with age, perhaps it is.

Blears, the wife of former professional wrestler Lord James "Tally Ho" Blears, is 81 years old. But she is a remarkably fit and witty octogenarian, and an inspirational model of how good health affects a person's outlook.

Blears has always taken care of her body -- "If you don't use it, you'll lose it" is another of her favorite lines -- and through aerobics, she has been teaching others on the Waianae Coast to get healthy for 22 years.

Her students are enthusiastic.

"Lee's classes are something I look forward to," said 73-year-old Alice Trani of Maili, who has been attending the Monday, Wednesday and Friday sessions at Waianae District Park gym for 18 years.

"She's great, so accommodating. If I stop now, I know my body will go downhill."

Elesa Padua, 69, and Adeline Mandac, 65, joined the class last fall.

Padua said she used to see her doctor almost every week for lower back pain, but no longer does.

"I was 269 pounds when I started in September," she said. "I have lost 10 pounds and now I can keep up with the class. Nothing can make me stay home to miss my exercise now."

Mandac, who has two great-grandchildren, lost 20 pounds since she began and said her whole outlook has changed.

She completed the Aloha Fun Run in February "even though the last two miles were tough for me," and feels "excellent."

"It's an incentive when you have an 81-year-old instructor," Mandac said. "You feel if she can do it, I can do it."

Blears instructs about 30 people, ranging in age from 25 to 84. Her classes begin at 9 a.m.

She thinks walking is a beneficial activity, but said it just strengthens the legs and heart. Older people should do more to maintain good health, and never stop being active.

"Exercise is the best thing," she said. "You're using muscle, and muscle is what keeps the body frame up. Older people need to do something like this instead of sitting down and watching TV. If your body and brain isn't working, they'll go dead."

The only men who attend regularly are Dick Darling, 76, and Tom Silva, 84. Darling said he's taken three inches off his waist since starting 2 years ago.

"When you feel younger, you start thinking you look younger, too," he said.

"Lee makes it so easy. She always tells the newcomers to do what they can, or sit and watch until they're ready to start. You never feel any pressure to keep up but once you've been here for a while, you want to keep up."

Silva, who has had two heart bypass surgeries, joined 18 months ago with his wife, Nani, 76. Both are concerned about keeping their cholesterol and blood pressure levels under control.

"This has really been good for me," he said.

"Around Waianae, there aren't many exercise programs. In most senior programs, you mostly sit down and do craft work. At our age, you need some kind of exercise for the whole body that's not strenuous."

Activity has always been a vital part of life for Leonora "Lee" (Caracciolo) Blears, who was born in New York City on Sept. 2, 1918, the youngest of eight children and the only one still living.

"I was always aware of being fit and healthy," said Blears, who grew up playing a lot of tennis.

She met her husband, now 77, at a Long Island beach, where he was a lifeguard. The couple celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary on Feb. 22.

"She's had to keep up with me; I've been chasing her around for 53 years," he kidded, when asked how his wife keeps so fit.

Blears said she jogged, swam and bicycled to stay in shape while her husband wrestled professionally. She also learned to "eat right."

"The three things you've got to watch out for are sugar, fats and salt," she said. "We eat a lot of chicken and fish, occasionally a leg of lamb. I eat vegetables and fruits at least three times a day."

After their third visit to Hawaii, the couple sold their California home and moved here in 1955.

While her husband wrestled, Lee worked as a resident manager at Hawaiian King Hotel. In the late 1950s, she was hired by Timmy Leong to manage the women's division of his gym but found the training, mostly with light weights, "boring."

The Blearses both enjoyed surfing, and their move to Makaha 31 years ago was a dream come true. It came about the time the benefits of aerobic exercise were becoming widely known.

"When aerobics with music started, it gave us a chance to cover every part of the body," said Blears, who went to work for Great Shape Figure Salon in Waipahu in 1971.

She began teaching in Waianae when the gym opened in 1978.

Physical activity seems to be a family trait. They have four children -- Jimmy, 51; Laura, 50; Carol Arreola, 48; and Clinton, 41 -- and two grandsons.

Jimmy and Laura have both won world surfing championships, and both daughters teach aerobics: Laura on Maui, where her son Dylan Ching played in this year's Hula Bowl; and Carol on Kauai.

Blears believes exercise slows the aging process -- and some of her students hope so.

Angie Dacoscos, 31, who gave birth to her fifth child six months ago, was interested in finding an exercise class and heard about Blears through a flier.

"We've got a history of heart disease and diabetes in our family so I want to make sure that I'm healthy now that I'm over 30," she said.

"When I see Lee, I know that's how I want to be when I'm at that age. It takes motivation and self-discipline to do what she has done."

Blears gives back to the class most of the $1-a-session fees she collects -- in door prizes, achievement awards for improved body measurements, and "luncheons, excursions and a Christmas party."

She plans to teach for as long as she can.

"I don't feel any older than I did when I started," she said. "I'm going to do this until I die.

"The class is like my family. They make me happy and I feel good when I'm with them."


(Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 24, 2000)

By John Berger

This is going to be a big weekend for James "Lord Tally Ho" Blears. It's strictly coincidence, but "KGMB 9 Remembers: Wrestling in Hawaii" is airing on the anniversary weekend of his escape from a war crime at sea during World War II.

It was 56 years ago this Sunday that Blears, a young radio officer on an Allied merchant ship, was one of nearly 100 people taken aboard a Japanese submarine after the sub sank his ship. The Japanese began killing the survivors, but Blears was one of five who escaped. His first meal when he was rescued three days later was a can of peaches. He has eaten a can of peaches on that anniversary ever since.

Blears' wartime service is part of the history of local wrestling, and its superstars are covered in glorious detail by KGMB producer/director Lawrence Pacheco in the documentary. Blears is profiled in depth along with four other legendary locals: Curtis "Da Bull" Iaukea, "Prince" Neff Maiava, Sam "Steamboat" Mokuahi and Don "The Magnificent" Muraco.

Tom Moffatt hosts the show in segments shot on location outside Conroy Bowl, Bloch Arena, Blaisdell Arena and the site of the Civic Auditorium. Vintage photos and rare footage of classic matches recall the days when Lord Blears and Gentleman Ed Francis made "50th State Wrestling" the hottest program on local TV and a top draw across Hawaii.

"People in Hawaii like to get to know the wrestlers, talk to them, and when we were promoting wrestling here they could," Blears says of the days when wrestling greats like Iaukea, High Chief Peter Maiava, "Handsome Johnny" Barend (aka "The Psycho"), the Missing Link, "King" Ripper Collins and Chief Billy White Wolf were not only celebrities, but visible and accessible on the beach and in the community.

"You don't get that contact from television or when guys today fly in for a match at the Blaisdell and fly out the next day."

Blears says he saw a decline in fan support after the destruction of the Civic Auditorium in 1974. "50th State Wrestling" moved to the Blaisdell Arena but the atmosphere wasn't the same.

Blears was already a national wrestling star when he came to Hawaii to wrestle in the mid-'50s. He expected to stay for a few weeks, but ended up extending for seven months, then moved here for good.

Francis and Blears became Hawaii's resident wrestling promoters several years later and presented a cavalcade of colorful local and national wrestlers. Iaukea and Barend were among the first to realize the theatrical possibilities of locker-room interviews.

Pacheco and Moffatt make it clear in the documentary that "50th State Wrestling" pioneered many ideas later adopted by the World Wrestling Federation and its counterparts.

Today's superstars earn more money, but much of what they do was pioneered here.

"Nobody else was doing the things we did," Blears says. "Other promoters would come here to see what we were doing. They couldn't believe it!"

The WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It) Papers No. 7



Universal Wrestling Federation - An Introduction (by Charles Laffere)

First, a little personal history… Houston Wrestling was the best. I was raised on Channel 39 every Saturday night from 10:00 to 11:30 P.M. The Sam Houston Coliseum was a dark, dingy, smelly old municipal building in downtown Houston used mostly for heavy metal concerts, religious revivals, second rate circuses, and pro wrestling. The city tore it down several years ago. Paul Boesch was a promoter who would bring in just about any wrestler if the guy could draw money. I remember seeing Jose Lothario, Mil Mascaras, Ernie Ladd (a hero in his hometown of Houston, a mega-heel everywhere else), the Funks, and the Briscos. Other stars who came into the area were Brute Bernard, Harley Race, the evil Playboy Gary Hart, Red Bastien, Ivan Putski, Superstar Billy Graham, the late, great Gino Hernandez, Andre, Tony Atlas and Al "don't call me a Mexican, I'm an Indian" Madril, just to name a very few. So many stars, all with different styles. Boesch would have the Mexican wrestlers do their interviews in Spanish and in English, and while it might seem condescending today, it certainly drew a large contingent of Mexican-American fans to the arena. Boesch did the announcing and interviewed the wrestlers himself and since he was a big man (about 6'5", 300 lbs.), no wrestler would ever try to intimidate him. He would hold events with AWA, WWWF, NWA,Southwest Championship and independent stars on the same card. Mr. Boesch was aligned with Mid-South during its glory days. In 1984, apparently Boesch got tired of trying to coordinate all the work himself so he let Watts send in the talent and he promoted it himself. Thus, the alliance between Mid-South and Houston Wrestling was formed.

Bill Watts is one of the truly legendary characters of modern pro wrestling… colorful, innovative, aggressive, shrewd, intriguing, controversial, you can pick many adjectives to describe the man in and out of the ring. Watts began promoting in his home state of Oklahoma in the 1970's, but eventually split from partner Leroy McGuirk and formed what would eventually become Mid-South Wrestling. The promotion covered four states initially: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma, with Texas added as an area later. In a time where traditionally strong territories such as St. Louis and Florida and fabled promotions like the AWA and the NWA were faltering due to Vince McMahon, Jr.'s aggressive corporate raider tactics and revolutionary television and marketing strategies, Watts' Mid-South thrived and prospered. When Watts had Mid-South running on all cylinders, he was rivaled only by Jim Crockett, for having the most entertaining promotion.

However, Mid South was not immune to the WWF's talent raids. By 1986, Watts had lost the Junkyard Dog (arguably Mid-South¹s biggest star) and Hacksaw Butch Reed to Titan. However, the man was undaunted. Being a firm believer that bigger is better, Watts decided to one-up McMahon. After all, what is bigger than the world? Well, the universe, of course! With the name change in March of 1986, the Universal Wrestling Federation became the biggest promotion in the galaxy. Obviously, the UWF and Mid-South were the same promotion with a different name. Still, Mid-South/UWF was the territory for me. The action was second to none and the title matches, the commentators, the angles, and the talent were all first-rate.

The commentators especially gave the UWF an edge. Watts' on-camera persona could often be that of a blustery, reactionary redneck, but there was no dismissing the guy as a John Rocker-type goof. He was one of the best color commentators ever. If there was a big time match or an important angle involved, nobody could get it over with more enthusiasm or passion than Watts. A young referee named Jim Ross eventually made his way to the broadcast position and began establishing himself as the best play-by-play man in wrestling. Michael Hayes also added color and humor to the UWF's TV programs.

With Watts in charge of Mid-South/UWF, everybody worked and worked hard. The booking was handled by Watts himself, Frank Dusek and Grizzly Smith (Jake Roberts' infamous dad). Wrestling minds such as Ted DiBiase, Shane Douglas, Michael Hayes, Eddie Gilbert, Ken Mantell, Terry Taylor and Bill Dundee all spent time in Watts' employ. The angles and storylines usually maintained a strong amount of interest. and they fit the talent that was put into them.

Looking at the talent that work for Mid-South/UWF, it is evident that Watts was an expert at evaluating performers. DiBiase, Junkyard Dog, Jake Roberts, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Steve "Dr. Death" Williams, Sting, Taylor, Douglas, the Rock 'n Roll Express, the Midnight Express with Jim Cornette, Rick Steiner, Jack Victory, the Fantastics, Magnum TA, Buddy Landell, Black Bart, Barry "Krusher Kruschev" Darsow, Jim Neidhart, the One Man Gang, Kamala and others put themselves on the wrestling map while working for the promotion. In addition, he established stars like Ernie Ladd, the Freebirds, Eric the Red, Porkchop Cash, Dick Murdoch, Mr. Wrestling #2, the Road Warriors, the Sheepherders, Buzz Sawyer, Dick Slater and Watts' fellow Midnight Rider, Dusty Rhodes. All had memorable moments in the company.

Television programming was an area of strength for Mid-South/UWF. Unlike other promotions which featured poor production values, squash matches and cartoonish, cliched interviews, Mid-South/UWF didn't waste a whole lot of time with talk and the matches were usually high energy. It was one of the few promotions in the country during that time that had a title match on TV almost every week. Often, several defenses would be made on one show. Mid-South/UWF seemed to be a promotion that pioneered the concept that TV was an important place to set up angles and that action usually spoke louder than words. During this time, even the WWF was featuring lots of matches involving their job squad of Mario Mancini, Johnny K-9, the Brooklyn Brawler, etc.

However, Watts' move to being a singular promotion had its drawbacks. Prior to the UWF's declaration of independence in March 1986, Mid-South was still loosely aligned with the NWA. The NWA's number one attraction at the time was none other than the Nature Boy, Ric Flair. Flair in 1986-7 was much like Ali in 1966-7 or Jordan in 1997… the best ever at his game. Flair had memorable feuds with DiBiase and Duggan during the Mid-South era. With Watts' decision to form his truly independent promotion, it meant no more visits from Flair. In addition, the UWF's world champions were interesting selections. Terry Gordy, the first champ, was one of the best wrestlers in the world at the time and a very solid choice. He was followed by The One Man Gang, who fresh off a run in WCCW, seemed okay. But Big Bubba Rogers, in '87, isn't any better than the Big Bossman in '00. Why JimDuggan, a man who is still over in the territory even over a dozen years later, or Dr. Death, possibly the best power wrestler in the world at that time and Watts' protégé, didn't get a world title run is curious. Without knowing the circumstances, it's all just speculation.

Even though the promotion went through a name change, the UWF remained a regional promotion. Watts could not compete with the WWF's media blitz and celebrity glitz or Crockett's cable saturation on TBS. Another factor was Watts himself. By many accounts, Watts was difficult to deal with. When Mid South became the UWF, and eventually was sold to the NWA in April of 1987, Boesch, whose relationship with Watts turned quite bitter at the end, instead of joining up with the NWA, opened the door to negotiations with Vince McMahon, and McMahon closed the surprising deal in record time. The four-month affiliation with Titan proved to be an even more bitter pill to swallow than the last months with Watts. Boesch left the wrestling business before a sell-out crowd of 12,000 in the summer of '87.

Mid-South/UWF tapes have been hard for me to find. Apparently, Watts' ex-wife got the master tapes as part of their divorce settlement! RF Video recently released a four-hour tape compilation of prime Mid-South/UWF footage interspersed with "shoot" interviews and comments from Watts. I've ordered it in the hope of gaining insight into the promotion.

Looking at the talent that came out of the Mid-South area and some of the angles that originated in the area and went on to be copied around the rest of the country, it's clear that Mid-South/UWF was one of the best promotions ever. It's even more impressive when you realize that Mid-South/UWF actually lasted less than seven years total.


By Steve Speed

Global Wrestling Federation had to be the one of the best regional organizations in wrestling history but it only lasted for 4 years. The Texas territory was around since the mid-60’s, but didn’t become famous until the 1980’s. Before, GWF was created NWA World Class Championship Wrestling dominated the Texas scene from 1966-1986. When Fritz Von Erich left the NWA, he changed the name to World Class Wrestling Association which eventually became United States Wrestling Association (when Von Erich sold the organization to Jerry Jarrett the owner of the Championship Wrestling Association in Memphis, TN). The USWA had two areas of states in which they aired different shows... USWA in Memphis, and USWA in Dallas. Then the USWA left Dallas in June of 1991. This lead to some of the USWA Dallas workers being unemployed until Joe Pedicino created the GWF in the same month. Many USWA Dallas wrestlers found themselves working with the GWF.

The GWF had a cable television contract with ESPN in 1991 airing shows Monday through Friday and a syndication contract with America One Network. The GWF held shows from the Dallas Sportatorium. Craig Johnson (former commentator of USWA Dallas) and Scott Hudson hosted the program while Joe Pedicino delivered weekly news from pro wrestling and Bonnie Blackstone (Pedicino's wife) interviewed wrestlers and fans. The first GWF show aired in June of '91. It featured the GWF Television Title Tournament with stars such as Stan Lane, Buddy Landell, Adrian Street, Makhan Singh, Rip Rogers, Doug Somers, and other veterans. The Patriot became the first GWF TV champion by defeating "Nature Boy" Buddy Landell. The GWF tournaments had 3 semi-finalist with all three flipping a coin in which one wrestler entered the finals and two semi-finalist wrestled for the second spot in the finals.

The main title was the GWF North American Title (won by The Patriot who defeated Al Perez). The GWF tag team titles (won by Chris Walker and Steve Simpson over the team of Scott Anthony (Raven) and Rip Rogers). The GWF TV title was the number one contender championship. The GWF Light Heavyweight title (won by The Lightning Kid/X-Pac over Jerry Lynn) was for wrestlers under 235 pounds. The tournaments also featured stars from Georgia All-Star Wrestling, Pro Wrestling America and USWA.

The GWF was the last wrestling organization to be aired on ESPN. The roster began decreasing in 1992 and 1993. While action was still great, attendance at live shows were decreasing. The curtain call came in September, 1994, when the Global Wrestling Federation went out of business. The GWF helped start great wrestling careers for Marcus "Buff" Bagwell, Harlem Heat, Jerry Lynn, X-Pac, Axl and Ian Rotten, John "Hawk" Bradshaw and the late Bobby Duncum Jr.


(Orlando Sentinel, July 14, 2000)

By Ric Russo

Was it or wasn't it? That was the big question heard throughout the pro wrestling community Sunday night after "Bash at the Beach," the latest pay-per-view event of World Championship Wrestling.

Was the bizarre match between WCW World Heavyweight Champion Jeff Jarrett and challenger Hulk Hogan a "shoot" -- a pro wrestling term for the real deal -- or was it a "work," a word used to describe a storyline angle?

The match at Daytona Beach's Ocean Center was supposed to be one of the show's main events. Instead, the title bout lasted barely 15 seconds as Jarrett, at the behest of WCW main script writer Vince Russo, lay flat on his back in the center of the ring after the opening bell and allowed Hogan to pin him.

Amid a boisterous chorus of boos, an obviously agitated Hogan picked up the belt and left the building. That's when the real fun began.

Russo climbed into the ring, grabbed the microphone and delivered a profanity-laced tirade against Hogan. He said the real reason he took a three-week hiatus from the company last month was because of all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans going on in the struggling sports entertainment company.

"Three weeks ago I left WCW, and quite frankly, I didn't know if I was going to come back," Russo told the pay-per-view audience. "And the reason I didn't know if I was going to come back or not is because from day one that I've been with WCW, I've done nothing but deal with the [expletive] of the politics behind the curtain."

Speculation leading up to the "Bash at the Beach" PPV was that Hogan would position himself to win the championship from Jarrett. Sunday morning when Russo sat down with both men to discuss the night's action, Hogan did not like what he heard and decided to invoke a creative control clause in his contract.

Russo had the idea that Hogan should beat Jarrett senseless and lose the match via a disqualification. The Hulkster balked at that notion and told Russo he would win the match and the WCW championship. Russo and Jarrett gave Hogan his wish with the uncontested pinfall victory.

Since joining the company from the World Wrestling Federation last year, Russo has made no secret of the fact he feels WCW needs to put some of the older guys -- i.e. Hogan and Ric Flair -- out to pasture and try to develop some of the younger talent on its roster.

Does Sunday night's number on Hogan finally put an end to Hulkamania?

"I just can't imagine Hulk Hogan riding off into the sunset this way," said Alan Sharp, WCW's director of public relations. "Will he be back with us? Will he go somewhere else? To be totally honest, I just don't know."

Monday morning Hogan took his case to the airwaves threatening legal action against Russo and WCW on a radio show in the Tampa Bay area.

But as anyone who has followed pro wrestling can tell you, this could be all part of an elaborate plan by Hogan and WCW to set up an even bigger storyline somewhere down the road. According to an employee of the Atlanta-based organization, Hogan still has some contract obligations to fulfill.

"He's scheduled to do two more pay-per-views that I'm aware of," said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But I just don't see how they can bring him back after the way this went down. But this is pro wrestling so you can never say never."

And what is Russo's view?

"You can quote me on this . . . the next time you see Hulk Hogan in WCW is the last time you'll see me here," Russo told a reporter on Monday. 'If for some reason his contract forces WCW to allow him back, I'm out of here. It's that simple."

Immediately after the Hogan-Jarrett match, Russo said the belt that Hogan took would be the "Hulk Hogan Memorial Belt" and that Jarrett was still the champ. Then Russo set up another championship match with a new WCW belt on the line, and in that bout Booker T. defeated Jarrett to become the new champion.

The victory was cheered by many within the ranks of WCW. Booker T., a 14-year wrestling veteran, is perhaps the most respected performer in the locker room.

"He's a consummate professional who quietly goes about his business," Sharp said of the first black wrestler in nearly a decade to hold a world championship belt in singles competition. "Booker never complains, works hard and always does his best to put on a good show."

Expect Booker to remain the group's champion for quite some time. WCW needs a wrestler with his stability and work ethic out in front to raise the morale in the locker room. In the past year, WCW has undergone several management changes, lost several key players to injury and defections and encountered infighting among several of its top stars.

WCW announcer Scott Hudson said there were 16,000 fans at the Ocean Center, but official attendance for "Bash at the Beach" came in at only 4,400.

BAM BAM BURNED -- WCW wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow is recuperating at home following a bizarre July 4 accident during a barbecue near his home in Wayside, N.J. Bigelow suffered burns over 40 percent of his body when a brush fire broke out near the cookout. Bigelow was trying to help several people get away from the flames when he suffered second-degree burns on his arms, legs and most of the left side of his body. He spent 10 days in the hospital but is expected to make a full recovery . . . Ric Flair is also recovering at home following surgery on his left rotator cuff. He is expected to be on the sidelines for seven to nine months . . . Former WWF champion Bob Backlund is running for Congress in his home state of Connecticut, and he has been seeking financial support for his efforts at wrestling arenas throughout the Northeast. Backlund has been spotted at several WWF events since announcing his candidacy last year. Last weekend at an Extreme Championship Wrestling show in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Backlund reportedly got into an altercation with some fans and was thrown out of the building by security . . . Paul Wight -- a k a WWF performer The Big Show -- will be lending his support to another wrestling big man when he appears Saturday at the grand opening of John Tenta's School of Professional Wrestling in Sanford. Tenta, who performed in the WWF as Earthquake during the mid-'90s, is opening the training facility at 1396 Tropic Drive, next to Flea World. Wight, currently sidelined as he recovers from knee surgery, will be there from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Also on hand will be Typhoon, Tenta's former tag-team partner from his days as one-half of the Natural Disasters. Typhoon, real name Fred Ottman, will be at the school from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. signing autographs and chatting with fans. The school opens at 9 a.m. For more information, call 407-688-4742.


(San Jose Mercury News, Saturday, July 15, 2000)

By Aileen Dodd

MIAMI -- A  hulking mass of sunburned brawn, Bruno Sassi climbs King Kong-style to the top rope of a wrestling ring. He teeters and belly-flops, hurling himself upon his dazed foe like the wrath of God on the sinners of Sodom.

But a sudden, desperate boot to the gut stops 255 pounds in midflight. Sassi splats on the mat.

"Auuugh!'' he yells as the wind is knocked out of him.

A clobbering foiled. Again.

Sassi, a bruiser with a voracious appetite in the hungry minor leagues of pro wrestling, slinks to the showers of the National Car Rental Arena, a defeated, instantly forgotten warm-up act before a World Wrestling Federation broadcast.

The Rock, Sassi is not.

Yet in this American subculture of Spandex stretched over sweaty beef, beer sloshing in cups the size of paint buckets, and four-letter words flying as fast as power slams, Sassi is carving out an unlikely niche.

Behind the scenes, he is the Robert Schuller of wrestling: a bleached-blond minister of might with an agent in high places.

But instead of a cross and a clergy robe, Sassi wears his faith like a secret shield beneath a red-and-white, Greek-lettered, cut-off T-shirt and shorts. Under the glare of the spotlight, he plays the role of a paddle-swinging, wise-cracking, chapter president of the ``fraternity'' Phi Delta Slam and rousts hecklers with a finger in the face and a fiery ``Shut your stinkin' mouth!''

Though his ring persona is hardly angelic, backstage he is a holy man.

A member of an underground network of evangelizing Christian wrestlers, Sassi keeps his Animal House act in the ring rated PG. There's no cursing. No middle-finger salutes. No parading or degrading women.

Nothing that would keep him from joyfully praising the Lord in a crisp dress shirt, silk print tie and shiny black loafers at Hollywood (Fla.) First Assembly of God Church on Wednesdays and Sundays.

"A lot of people look down on wrestling, but it's like having any other job. You go to work, earn your money, but you have to do the right thing,'' Sassi, 29, says between bear hugs at Sunday service. "I love the Lord and I love wrestling. Why should I have to choose?''

Sassi's partner in this God Squad is Andre Jimenez, a wrestler and minister-in-training at the Greater Miami Church of God.

"Right now wrestling promotes violence, profanity and sexuality, but that is not the only side of the sport. There could be a positive side that promotes showmanship and discipleship,'' Jimenez says. "We want to set the example. Our mission is to promote Christ in everything we do.''

Sassi committed his life to Jesus at Jimenez's church home, the Greater Miami Church of God. Ever since, he has been God's muscle in wrestling's minor leagues.

"I always have a Bible everywhere I go. I don't ram it down their throats, but I do share what I believe,'' says Sassi, who is taking a correspondence course in theology with Berean University in Springfield, Mo.

No matter how hurt or exhausted he is, Sassi still makes it to church.

"Bruno has high hopes,'' says his mentor, the Rev. Antonio Zotti, who has coached Sassi for five years along his path to the pulpit. "Wrestling is his love, but his first love is to serve God.''

Yet even ministers can become addicted to the roar of a crowd, says Sassi. ``When you go into the ring, you are the man, the center of attention, the Winn Dixie champion,'' he said. "It's all about having fun, making people cheer or boo.''

Sassi carries the same attitude with him when he preaches at Hollywood First Assembly, where the congregation can get as rowdy as a wrestling audience screaming for blood.

On a recent Sunday, the Rev. Zotti asked the lively bunch to get out of their pews and praise God. With that, one man grabbed a Christian flag and paraded around the one-room sanctuary until he broke into a sprint in time with the music.

When it is Sassi's turn to minister to the flock on Youth Day, he sheds his bodacious alter ego, Phi Delta Slam; Sassi becomes Bruno the shepherd, Bruno the Christian sharing his personal testimony of faith.

"When I first walked into church, spiritually I was a wreck. I wore workout clothes to service. There were times I was so broke, I had to eat mayonnaise sandwiches without the mayonnaise. Just one drop of blood is all it takes. If you accept Jesus, then you are saved and you don't have to worry again.''

Bruno took over the church's fledgling youth ministry at First Assembly two years ago when the class had dwindled to three.

"He looked freaking huge,'' says student Ishmael Castro, recalling a tape of one of Bruno's matches. But at church, he is a pushover. ``Bruno is like a big kid. He's funny. He's cool. The Bible is boring, but he makes it fun.''

Sassi was raised in a traditional Italian Catholic household, the youngest of two sons. He begrudgingly endured the usual rituals to get to know God: communion, confession and catechism. But after all that, he didn't feel any closer to Him.

At age 17, tragedy brought Bruno closer to spirituality. Frank Sassi began to suffer with lung cancer. Bruno stood vigil by his father's bedside, feeding, dressing and bathing him, watching the strong man wither before his eyes until he died on Christmas in 1987.

"It was an awakening to life,'' Sassi recalls, though he still wouldn't entertain religion for another six years. ``One day, you had your dad. The next day, you don't. It was a rough time. It was like that's it, you're grown up.''

Sassi graduated from Miramar High School a year later with a B average and varsity letters in football and track. He was offered partial academic scholarships but decided to stay home and pursue wrestling as a career.

Between odd jobs as a pool deck boy, a waiter and a billiard hall manager, he studied at a Hallandale, Fla., wrestling school and spent hours in the gym sculpting his body.

"Everybody said there is no way this little 5-foot-10 fat kid is going to make it,'' says Sassi, laughing.

Caught up in the wrestling circuit, Sassi fell victim to a gamut of temptation: drugs, alcohol, women, strip bars.

One night, he got so smashed on a potentially lethal cocktail of booze, Valium and painkillers that he blacked out for 24 hours. Somehow he managed to win a wrestling match and drive his friends home from a party.

"My friends said I was acting a little strange, but they didn't even know I was messed up,'' he says. ``We could have been killed in that car.''

The next day, Jimenez, a wrestler Sassi was helping to train, invited him to church.

``I was outright rude to him,'' Sassi recalls.

But Jimenez persisted until the two became brothers in Christ in 1993, and reverends-in-training. Soon after, a wild man morphed into a family man.

In 1997, Sassi settled down and married Angela Napoli, who sings in his church choir. She was a childhood friend and the daughter of Sicilian immigrants who were close to Sassi's family. The two are expecting a son -- Joseph Bruno Sassi -- this month.

"I am constantly in prayer for him so that he will come home to me in one piece,'' Angela says of his wrestling career.

For unknowns like Sassi and Jimenez, success is an uphill battle. In Jimenez's own home, it's easier to force-feed his three kids raw spinach than to get them to watch their father's wrestling tapes.

"The kids don't like me,'' says Jimenez. "I'm not the Rock,'' referring to wrestling superstar Dwayne Johnson.

"My daughter said, `If you aren't in the WWF, I don't watch you.' ''


(The Metro, July 13-19, 2000)

By Mary Spicuzza

The deafening blasts, flashing lights and smoke churning from dry ice machines almost pulled my companion and me away from the concession stand at the live World Wrestling Federation takeover of the San Jose Arena last Monday night. But we had more pressing matters at hand, namely waiting behind a charming man sporting a "Poontang Pie" T-shirt as we chirped with excitement at the opportunity to drink Budweiser through a straw while joining a live broadcast of cable's number-one-rated program, "WWF Raw is War!"

"This is how the girls in Texas always drank beer," my gal pal, a Kentucky native and confessed fan of classic '80s WWF, says, happily sucking down some cold Bud. "This way it didn't mess up their lipstick."

She then launches into fond childhood memories of Saturday mornings spent watching her former favorite pro-wrestler smack his foes with folding chairs. Meanwhile I feel like a complete fraud, never having even watched WWF, a show condemned by my amateur wrestling champion father as a form of blasphemy. A deeper feeling of inadequacy and pure cultural illiteracy takes over as a woman in tiny zebra-striped spandex pants and a large matching hat struts past carrying giant signs proclaiming her devotion to the sport.

Thank goodness my companion doesn't seem to notice my discomfort. Her green eyes glisten as she remembers what made the childhood idol her favorite.

"He wore these tight pants," she smiles innocently.

We may have missed the official opening festivities waiting in line behind an 8-year-old boy ogling a buxom wrestling groupie featured in the souvenir program, but our long Bud-
supported wait did help us catch what allows the WWF to grapple its audiences into submission. It's all about the show outside the ring. And it's sure to make Spartan Stadium's new XFL professional football team, part of an up-and-coming WWF-inspired league, a success.

Don't get me wrong--I love melodrama as much as the next girl. And the professional wrestlers promise plenty of it. The Undertaker and Kurt Angle duke it out over whose motor bike is bigger and better, rival wrestlers' girlfriends scratch and claw at each others' hair and clothes, and alliances are made and broken with the help of behind-the-scenes glimpses and MTV-inspired video clips. As long as large, thick-necked men--cartoonish whether dressed up as superheroes or sporting Speedos and a full-body waxed look--grab each other and acrobatically thrust each other to the ground, there will undoubtedly be debate over whether pro-wrestlers are true athletes or pure phonies. Pro-wrestling seems to be a testosterone-laced soap opera, complete with buff badass heroes and goody-two-shoes villains, sledgehammers and fake blood.

But what makes going to the WWF feel like a trip to Fantasy Island is the surreal role-playing crowd. Sweet little tikes join in with the crowd as they cheer against meat-headed Triple H and his girlfriend, Stephanie, chanting "Stephanie swallows!"

"Stephanie swallows what, Mom?" a little girl a few rows down asks.

A round, bespectacled boy cheers for Stephanie, one of the main leather-pants wearing Jezebels of the evening, bravely defending her honor despite many hand-drawn signs questioning her chastity. Nearby a skinny kid who screams "I collect comic books!" mutters different wrestlers' names under his breath, clearly well-read in the entire WWF melodrama.

My companion and nearby fans cheer for the sinister-looking Kane as he pummels some clean-cut goody-goody. Despite the initial knee-jerk Catholic guilt reaction (Wait! Jealous Cain killed his innocent, pure-hearted brother Abel in the Old Testament!), I find myself rooting for bad boy Kane. He brings out the inner badass--Kane wouldn't get bullied by uppity types or shoved around in line trying to buy a soft pretzel with spicy mustard.

Slurping down the dregs of my beer, I finally feel at one with the crowd, at peace with my dark side, and even confident enough to chat with the young man sitting in front of us, Matt.

"You don't usually watch this, do you?" he asks suspiciously.

Okay, so some are better role-players than others. But as far as the actual wrestlers, I still know a 13-year-old girl who could take them all down.