Independent Wrestling Federation
Wrestling school teaches hopefuls all the right moves
By TIM NORRIS, HERALD NEWS | 02/03/08
(WEST PATERSON, NJ)- How in the bruising blazes is Tony Torres ever going to stuff the enormous and glowering Franciz into that thin white body bag? Assuming Franciz doesn’t stuff Torres there, first.
“He’s gonna die!” Torres is calling, and Franciz answers with a forearm to the Adam’s apple. The referee, Barry Delaney, is, literally, holding the bag, looking at both of them from beyond the ring, waiting for a cue, while a pro-Torres crowd jeers and chants from folding chairs, “Franciz, you’re FAT!” and, for Torres in his Dominican-flag-toned singlet, “Lah-tee-NOH! Lah-tee-NOH!”
This is the evening’s last match, the big finish to the first night of the Independent Wrestling Federation’s Winter Warfare Weekend. Outside the ring, the room, the building, a car sits at a curb on Willow Way in West Paterson. A mother, Giselle Roberts, waits. Her son, Jason, 17, is inside, coming off a tag-team match, shedding his satiny green singlet, daubing a little blood from his mouth. His shoulders and back, he says, will be sore in the morning. The car engine is running, exhaust pluming a wintry dark. “That crazy lady that was screaming all through his match,” his mother says, “that was me.”
A few spectators had left the IWF Centre on this Saturday night in mid-January at intermission, declining snacks and souvenirs, skipping climactic battles for belts and the concluding body bag. Early departures included two women displaying major cleavage and their escorts, in athletic jackets. A few come to show off, maybe as an audition for a female manager’s role. Most come to ogle and shout and stay to the end, and some get louder as the night goes on. Family members cheer and worry. They know better than most what the ring demands.
Michelle McDaniel knows, too. She’s a photographer, now, but not long ago she enlisted briefly in the IWF Pro Wrestling School, foundation of the enterprise, and a standard drill of butting arms and shoulders raised bruises and welts from collarbone to elbow on her left arm. The wrestlers make the combat look easy, McDaniel says. It isn’t.
Now she is taking pictures for the IWF Web site, WrestlingIWF.com. The wrestlers keep her clambering and dodging for camera angles around the center’s roped-in ring.
With attacks coming in furious flurries and bodies flying through and over the ropes onto blue mats on the floor, even onto sharp wood stairs and into poles, capturing the action is tricky. Capturing the essence of this enterprise is, too. Across six matches, a simple question of who wins and who loses ravels into far more dizzying questions of costume and character, of risk and reward, of fame and fortune, of identity.
IWF’s ringmaster Kevin Knight is riding the mike for the opening matches. Here, dual roles seem central. On the one hand, Knight is the enterprise’s calm administrative center, directing and guiding, keeping the accounts. On the other, he is flying through the air bare-chested, in Spandex. After intermission, he steps into the ring himself, defending one of a host of IWF titles.
He is, friends say, living his dream. He and buddy Rich Ross (now playing the role of the IWF’s corrupt, power-mongering commissioner) were radio guys in the ’90s, students at William Paterson University, and they loved pro wrestling and pranks and show biz. After Knight started the IWF, 11 years ago, and its pro-wrestling school, nine years ago, a co-owner bowed out. Knight kept putting in the hours, putting his body at risk in the ring, and working the circuit, sending stories on his stable of wrestlers to radio and TV and hometown papers, inviting scouts from bigger circuits, delving and dealing among the three-lettered world of pro wrestling, the WWE, WCW, ECW. His business cards these days read “Actor, Model, Pro Wrestler” and also “Owner, IWF.”
“I always tell my students,” he says, “in this business, in life, keep trying, because you never know.”
While living a dream, he is also selling one: entree to the realm of professional wrestling, one that harks back to Gorgeous George, villainous wrestling sensation of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s with his preening strut and long blond locks; to the great Santo in Mexico and Abe Coleman, the “Hebrew Hercules”; to road shows still migrating from armory to bingo hall in small towns, to Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE) and TV and movies. From the start, pro wrestling, attacked as “fake,” offered fan-grabbing storylines, often feeding on feuds and vengeance, cruelty and triumph, heroes and villains.
“In the wrestling world, this is the entertainment direction,” Knight says. “Same as figure skating, or ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ There’s costumes, there’s music, there’s routines, there’s choreography, but there’s also training, there’s bumps, there’s bruises.”
The best gauge of the IWF wrestlers’ desire is the bottom line: Aside from chump change for occasional out-of-town appearances, they PAY to do this. All of them started as students, paying to learn the basics over nine months (to graduate), and now they have moved on to performing. They live, they say, in hope of bigger things, and also in the moment. “Being in that ring, in front of that crowd,” Knight says, “is an incredible rush. Although it can be painful when they’re silent.”
Just now, the rush is on Biggie Biggs. The tag team of Justin Corino and Frank Scoleri have both jumped, illegally, on the amiable big man, whose partner is stranded in the ropes. The crowd erupts in booing. The passion felt by long-time fans such as Andrea Weingard of West Orange, shouting and brandishing signs reading “Nerd!” and “U Suck!,” comes clear: In this mix, the crowd seems to throw itself from ringside right into the action.
“I never miss one of these,” Weingard says. “I LOVE these guys!”
The bell sounds for the next match, and Knight in his best radio voice intones, “Scheduled for one fall, first, from Puerto Rico, weighing 192 pounds, An-TO-nio, Ri-VER-a!” Applause, shouts, music pounding from the sound system. “And his opponent, from Point Pleasant, weighing 215 pounds, a member of the Ross family, Travis BLAKE!” The bell clangs three times.,
Cacophony ensues: Howls, moans, screeches. “Trav-iss sucks!” “Lah-tee-NO!” A little boy shrills, “You STINK!” The crowd answers each fall, each reversal of fortune with widely nuanced noise: “YYeeeeahh!” “OOooooooh!” “BOOO!” Every fall rattles plywood planks under the ring. “Who’s the MAN?” Blake crows, and when Rivera finally falls for the count and the announcement comes, “The winner, Traavisss BLAAAAKE,” onlookers drown the between-matches music in a prolonged choral scream.
The enterprise, billed as family entertainment, dances a fine line. Wrestling traditionally skews blue-collar and young, though many of the feistiest fans are older. A newcomer might not hear the word “sucks” this often at a vacuum cleaner convention, but more deeply purple profanities are held in check.
They dance another line, too: the normally dangerous line of the politically incorrect. As much as anything, professional wrestling is an outlet, a way to uncork emotions bottled elsewhere.
Which is where Cameron Matthews comes in. He’s just down, he tells the crowd over a handheld mike, from the great state of Maine, and on the trip he could smell New Jersey from beyond the New York border, 20 miles away.
He is also prancing around in a pink satin vest and pink headband, and he pulls off sweat pants to reveal a pink Speedo flocked in white frou-frou. “Hey, freak show!” somebody yells from the crowd. “Get outta the ring!” Later a chant goes up, “Clean my pool! Clean my pool!” The word “fruitcake” is called into play. His wrestling is more emphatic, and the far more imposing Kevin Knight takes the full 20 minutes to put him away.
With every match, crowd-baiting comes standard. Insults to a state or ethnic group or gender might work. Telling a spectator to get bent works, too. Spectators usually snap back.
In an era rife with concerns about violence to women, a newcomer might be jarred by the next match: the winsome and statuesque Jana in combat with roguish Chris Steeler, who mocks her womanhood and hisses in her face (she nearly always fights males). Jana is, from all appearances, taking slaps to the head and kicks to the ribs, being body-slammed and elbow-hammered. “Damn right, that’s the way I treat a woman!” Steeler crows. BOOOO!
On this night, Jana ends her match curled in a far corner, seemingly unconscious, and Travis Blake’s illegal intervention gives Steeler the victory. Sometimes, the woman wins. “The men get it back, and they get it stronger,” Jana had said, earlier, sitting in the IWF office across the lobby. “It’s not one-sided. She fights back, and the women in the crowd are, like, YEAH!” Her mother, learning five years ago of her wrestling plans, threatened to kick her out of the house, objecting to the violence. Jana started her training in secret.
For fans, the spectacle, despite its violent staging, carries a cartoonish weightlessness. “As an adult,” Knight says, “we can say, ‘This is all phony, but, boy, they make it look so real!’ Part of the fun is seeing how well they can do it.” The risk, he says, is that a pretended elbow smash missing by six inches can sap a crowd’s spirit. One that actually lands can pump it right back up.
For wrestlers, the preparation and process can be all too real. All of them, sooner or later, work through injury. As she sits, talking, Jana from Hackensack, pushes at her knees, first one, then the other, coaxing kneecaps and tendons back into line. “One of my bones was misplaced,” she says. “I had surgery.” One advantage of pro wrestling, she says, is that opponents know and respect each other’s injuries. They take care of each other.
Each wrestler must sustain not just physical health but an alter ego, a character sometimes built against type. Frank Scoleri portrays a know-it-all bookworm, Justin Corino an egotist, Chris Steeler a cheat.
“My character is me times 10,” says Antonio Rivera. “In real life, I’m a real quiet person. When I’m in character, I’m just over-the-top. My character helped me, gave me confidence. And for promos (a wrestler’s sometimes-contentious ring diatribes to the crowd), I started speaking Spanish, and that helped me to get my Spanish better. Now my mother’s proud of me. She says, ‘Oh, you’re speaking good Spanish!'”
“My parents,” Scoleri says, “HATE this.”
Scoleri, 22, of Wayne played offensive tackle in football and wrestled the mainstream way at Wayne Hills High School (a single star on his maroon-and-white singlet recalls his team’s state football championship), and he says, “This is as intense as any other sport I’ve ever played.” It also gives them, they say, discipline, exercise, training in teamwork and time management, and, dare they say it, poise.
“I’m so much better at school presentations,” Jason Roberts says.
Scoleri sees a more immediate benefit. “For the time I’m out there,” he says, “I’m just free from everything. No worries about my next paycheck, no worrying about exams. This is now. Nothing else matters.” His dream, he says, is to wrestle, just one time, in Madison Square Garden. Knight wrestled there, once, in 2003.
Biggs also has performed in larger arenas. On this night he worked out front taking tickets, jawing gently with each newcomer. When a long-time fan popped up suddenly at the ticket window, he clutched his chest and moaned, “I have a heart condition. You can’t do that!” Nearby, Andrea Weingard laughed at the sight and said, “It’s always fun with him around.”
His tag-team match would be less fun for Scoleri. A head-bounce when Biggs slams him back-first to the mat leaves Scoleri woozy. In one group melee match, he was knocked cold. “They can’t stop a melee,” he says, “so I just lay there. Everybody stepped over me.”
They have all endured months, even years of training, some of them still working out four hours at a time, three nights a week while balancing day jobs and class time and home lives. Some can flash national credentials. Biggie Biggs and Fred BoneCrusher Sampson, for instance, have wrestled in WWE events, on television. Some show even more surprising resumes. Jana, for instance, is majoring in English at NYU and also works full-time as an administrative assistant in corporate real estate. Rivera works as an office assistant for a gasket company. Scoleri is majoring in history at William Paterson University. Jason Roberts is a senior at Passaic Valley High.
In a sense, Knight says, we ALL create ourselves, or re-create ourselves. “You think business or politics aren’t scripted?” he says. “Isn’t the winner in a lot of political races chosen beforehand?” People come to life in taking action, he suggests. They are rarely just what they appear to be. A red blot near his left eye looks like an abrasion. “Actually, it’s a birthmark,” he says, with the slightest smile.
Want to call this “fake?” Brace yourself for an IWF forearm-shiver. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to slap a person for that,” Scoleri says.
“And what REALLY gets me is seeing kids get publicity for backyard wrestling. Without knowing what you’re doing, without training, that’s stupid and dangerous.”
The night’s action certainly looks dangerous. The match that ignites the crowd most that night involves the tattooed, black-leathered Bryan Harley, in a tag team with Evan Schwartz against Jason Roberts and Nes Lopez and their manager, Kristina. Long-and-scraggly-haired, ham-hock-armed and malevolent, Harley provokes high emotion. At one point, cadres of fans on opposite sides yell “You suck!” at each other, and the whole crowd laughs.
Kristina, last name Butler, age 17 and a student at Clearview School in Wayne, is newest to the business, and she says, “I’m still becoming my character. I want to be the person who doesn’t take any crap from anybody.”
As the night wanes, Franciz and Tony Torres continue to thrash each other in bruising point and counterpoint, each straining to wrestle the other into the body bag, and three young boys at ringside with their dad continue to taunt Franciz with “F for FAT!” and “Franciz is fruity!”
“Shut your mouth!” Franciz snarls at a kid, and the kid, about 1/20th his size, yells, “You shut YOURS!”
They have no idea, Kevin Knight says, that in real life Francis “Franciz” came into the IWF a full 100 pounds heavier and worked it off in four-hour sessions, four and five days a week; that he keeps working through pain and showing up. Scoleri, the football lineman, says, “This is by far the most challenging thing most of us have ever done.”
Franciz and Torres have been pummeling each other for nearly 20 minutes, and several times the body bag has been thrown into the ring for one or the other. Now, finally, with a last spinning knee drop and elbow smash, Tony Torres flattens Franciz and bunches him into, or at least under, the bag. Torres exults, sweat-sheened, as his opponent is helped up and staggers away. The crowd, moments before shouting, “We want blood!” and “Use the chair!,” seems to have spent itself, too. A few still sound catcalls. Most step back into the chill smiling.
This kind of wrestling, Knight says, is not about wins and losses. It’s about creating characters and performing moves that people remember. That takes imagination and toughness, too.
With some of the crowd lingering, snagging last autographs and decompressing with family and friends, Jana finally breaks her character, bursting from the locker room and dashing across the lobby to the bathroom. “I have to go SO BAD!” she says, over her shoulder.
Knight takes a last moment to promo the next big events: a fans’ fantasy wrestling clinic and matches April 16 through 19 with former WWF star The Honky Tonk Man, and Pro Wrestling Youth Summer Clinics in July and August. As he talks, Knight is picking litter from among the folding chairs.
Unbending from the car, outside, Giselle Roberts hugs her son. Jason winces and smiles. “This has really helped him to grow,” his mother says, and Jason says, “I felt a little beat up afterward, honestly. But I’m fine. I don’t know where this will take me. Right now, I’m just having fun.” The next day he will watch the second set of matches as, among other things, Franciz wins and Knight loses. The day after that, he will go back to high school.