Modern-Day Gladiators Mix Bravado And Blood

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – June 10, 2001
By Nahal Toosi

WEST ALLIS — Ian Rotten’s forehead is ground meat.

Bruises and scars cover his arms. Blood streams down his face and over his swollen body.

As fans yell for more, the wrestler is hoisted by his nemesis, Hardcore Craig, and dropped into a wooden case topped with glass and filled with barbed wire.

Rotten is literally stuck.

“Get me out of here!” he screams.

By the time he gets out, Hardcore Craig has been declared the winner by Carmine DeSpirito, promoter of Mid American Wrestling.

“I’m not trying to screw you!” DeSpirito yells at a furious Rotten, who disputes the loss.

“The (expletive) you aren’t screwing me, you (expletive)!” Rotten yells back.

A few other wrestlers rush to the ring, as Rotten and DeSpirito keep arguing. The two finally settle on the rules of a grudge match.

A few more choice words, and then the show’s over.

The wrestlers retreat to back rooms. Fans wander out through a haze of smoke, taking care to avoid stepping on the smashed glass and splattered blood.

Workers dismantle the ring.

This is independent wrestling, where truth and fiction mix with blood and sweat. Scientists, salesmen and teenagers can be gods for an evening. And wrestling fans can pay $15 to pull up a chair and watch men, and occasionally women, act like they’re beating the hell out of each other.

A comedy. A drama. In some respects, a tragedy.

And it all happens a couple of times a month in the Knights of Columbus Hall in West Allis.

There are hundreds of independent wrestling operations across the country. Most don’t last more than a couple of years, and many are poorly staged — “a bunch of kids in sneakers,” DeSpirito said, puffing on a cigarette.

Last August, a first-time wrestler died after a flip wasn’t executed correctly at a small show in Sussex.

Mid American is about as well-established as they come. A secure fan base. Average attendance of about 250. One or two shows a month.

Some operations, such as Great Lakes Championship Wrestling in Grafton, offer traditional pro wrestling – body slams and arm twists and drop kicks. Others, such as Mid American, offer that tamer style as well as “hard-core” matches, a more violent, gory version in which wrestlers cut one another or themselves in the course of a match, often using objects offered by audience members.

Such wrestling organizations are largely unregulated, but depending on the injuries that occur, there can be legal repercussions. Courts in other states have held that people cannot consent to severe injuries, District Attorney E. Michael McCann said. The nature of the injury is key.

“To me, it’s barbaric, but it’s not necessarily illegal,” McCann said about the hard-core wrestling. “But it depends on the gravity of the injuries. At a certain point, public policy intervenes.”

The blood is real. So is much of the pain. So are the tacks, staples, barbed wire, wood and whatever else the hard-core wrestlers use to hurt one another.

But, DeSpirito said, these guys are illusionists as well. They don’t inflict life-threatening blows; instead of the jugular, they go for the jaw. Afterward, they basically clean themselves off and let the cuts heal. They are essentially independent contractors; DeSpirito has each sign a waiver releasing him from liability for personal injury.

The 31-year-old DeSpirito, who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in West Allis, has spent half his life in some facet of wrestling, although he has never pulled on tights professionally himself. When he began operating in West Allis in 1993 DeSpirito had no fan base, and times were hard.

“I remember my (former wife) and I going through the couch to look for change to buy cigarettes,” he said.

But wrestling took a leap in popularity in the mid-1990s, especially after Vince McMahon, head of the World Wrestling Federation, geared his shows more toward adults.

Interest trickled down to the “indies,” as the smaller operations are called.

Now, DeSpirito is so confident that people will get hooked on his shows that he barely advertises. The story lines that his wrestlers follow are simple, even a bit humorous. The participants know their roles and know how their matches will end. A few of the more complicated moves are rehearsed, and the rest of what happens in the ring is left to improvisation.

Usually, the majority of the show is traditional wrestling, with one main event, the hard-core match, at the end. There also are occasional hard-core extravaganzas.

The crowd eats it up. It wants to believe. It likes seeing the splattered blood.

“It’s a spectacle,” DeSpirito said. “I’m a big fan of P.T. Barnum and what he used to call ‘humbuggery.’ It’s the absurd, and people like the absurd.”

In a hall known more for wedding receptions than wrestling matches, nothing is sacred. Young women in tight pants and old men in plaid shirts shout obscenities together. Twentysomethings wearing Gothic makeup drink beer alongside aging jocks. Old ladies sell hot dogs and hamburgers in the back; young security guards keep order in the front.

“Faggot! Faggot!” fans yell as two sweaty men in tights roll over one another.

When a woman in the show stands at ringside, flaunting expensive breasts in a black bikini top, men yell: “Puppies! Puppies!” She loves it.

Most of the seats are arranged in two sets of rows between the ring and the main entrance. On one side of the ring, the announcer, along with DeSpirito and a few others, sit at a wooden table with an old bell.

Before and after matches, sometimes even during them, wrestlers use a microphone to incite the crowd, propel a story line or promote a future match. Audience members who are singled out — called an “ugly rat” for instance — have reached a new level of notoriety.

There are so many repeat customers that the fans become part of the show in their own right. DeSpirito’s ideal fan is someone like Rita Segerson, 22, a cashier who lives in Milwaukee and never misses a Mid American show. She even provides some weapons for the hard-core wrestlers.

At a recent show, she and her friends brought in a bunch of long fluorescent light bulbs strategically tied to some wood. The device and other homemade implements go into a big can; wrestlers can pick one to use if they wish.

“It’s fun; it’s stress-relieving,” Segerson said. “You can scream at the top of your lungs!”

Despite the screaming inside the hall, West Allis police say they’ve received no complaints about the operation.

Those screams are directed at the likes of “Britney Spears’ Boyfriend” Chuckie Smooth or “Love Machine” Matt Longtime.

The names and personas are all part of the show.

Daryck St. Holmes, Esq. is actually Daryck Beyer of Janesville, a quality assurance manager with a microbiology degree. Hardcore Craig is Craig Swan, a plumber from Chicago. Corporal Robinson a.k.a. Steven Robinson is an ex-Marine from Louisville.

Some say they wrestle to keep in shape. Others appreciate the attention of female fans (“But I’m very selective who I have sex with,” one volunteered). Still others began as fans and found themselves drawn into the ring.

Most work multiple independent operations, doing whatever is needed for the money. Each has adopted a character – either a “heel” (bad guy) or a “baby face” (good guy).

“I’ve been spit on; I’ve had things thrown at me. I’ve been called everything in the book,” said Beyer, 30, a heel who only performs in the traditional wrestling matches.

Frankie “The Thumper” DeFalco, 40, of West Allis, has been wrestling for 22 years, even competing in the WWF. He helped DeSpirito start Mid American. He’s a salesman, and has his two boys’ names — Nicolas and Jacob — tattooed on his arms.

His wife doesn’t want her children to wrestle when they grow up, and DeFalco won’t let the toddlers come to his shows.

“I just don’t want them to see me if I’m getting beat up,” DeFalco, also a traditional wrestler, said. “I don’t want them crying or freaking out or anything.”

But it’s common to see teenagers and younger children at the shows, often with their parents. The kids learn the chants quickly, and wear the Mid American T-shirts with pride.

Rotten, a 31-year-old Kentuckian whose real name is John Williams, teaches his craft on the side. Nine of every 10 students who sign up ultimately drop out. Those who stay do so, in part, because they love the spotlight.

“It’s the ultimate adrenaline rush,” Rotten said. “When you have a crowd in the palm of your hands and they react the exact way you want them to react, it’s like being a puppeteer. When you control those emotions like that, that’s an incredible feeling.”

Still, he’s not oblivious to the price he’s paying. His body is a scar-filled tribute to the hard-core genre. Strike the flesh on his forehead at the right angle, and the blood will stream out. But he loves the sense of control, the power, each match gives him.

“The guys who are doing hard-core are getting younger,” Rotten admits. “I have a loving wife. If I were to become crippled tomorrow, she would love me. . . . If I wasn’t a wrestler Monday morning, she would take care of me.”

Kurt Krueger is one of those just getting started.

A fan since he was a tyke, Krueger began wrestling with independent operations in December. He adopted the name Dysfunction, and he’s a baby face. He also is 17 and not yet out of West Allis Central High School.

Krueger dreams of the WWF, but for now he’s in a no-win situation — literally. The scripts require that rookies lose.

His mother dutifully comes to every match, taking pictures, yelling, “Come on, Kurt!”

She said her stomach churns to see him feigning pain: He admits, sometimes it’s real.

But apparently this is what her son loves to do, so she’ll support him.

These are optimistic days for independent operations. McMahon recently acquired his main competition, World Championship Wrestling, and also took over the lesser-known Extreme Championship Wrestling. Depending on how much consolidating McMahon does, a number of wrestlers — especially those who burned bridges with McMahon — will have to drop down to independent operations.

“Anybody who’s stiff and anybody who’s got an attitude in the locker room or anybody who’s stuck it to Vince in the past, they’re going to be in the unemployments,” said Jack Koshick, an event consultant for the WWF who lives in Milwaukee.

Jerry “The King” Lawler, a WWF icon who recently quit because McMahon had fired his wife, is a good example.

“When I quit the WWF, literally the phone started ringing off the hook from different independent promoters,” Lawler said from his Memphis home. “I got a call from Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom. People will come to see wrestling, and even more will come when there’s names they’re familiar with.”

For operations like Mid American, Rotten is one of the bigger names among the regular performers. Among hard-core aficionados, he’s a legend.

But four hours before he’s covered in blood and stuck with barbed wire at the hands of Hardcore Craig, he is deep in thought. Cap pulled low, he’s mulling over the night’s show and reflecting on the business with DeSpirito.

“When I wrestle, I like to think that when people watch my match they’ve gotten every dime out of my match,” Rotten said. “Whether they paid 15 dollars, 20 dollars or whatever, my match alone was worth the price of admission.”

Rotten is sitting in the dressing area at the Knights of Columbus; other wrestlers are out in the main hall, practicing jumps and holds — even screams.

By 7 p.m., the ring area is clear, and the wrestlers have retreated to put on their costumes. The tights come in every color; the boots are prized possessions; the tattoos are plentiful.

A few women, spilling out of their outfits, mix in. They are part of the wrestlers’ image – essentially showpieces or props.

As the wrestlers map out their matches, DeSpirito checks to ensure everyone knows the roles.

Fans start filing in. DeSpirito peers out a door and grumbles about the size of the crowd. The wrestlers aren’t thrilled either; their take depends on the size of the gate. A typical performer gets about $100 a match. Rotten gets more; Krueger, for now, works for free.

“You have to pay your dues,” he said.

As DeSpirito walks away, dragging on an ever-present cigarette, Krueger stops taping his wrists and peeks out the same door. A few friends and family members are taking their seats.

He looks over at the creaky, old ring.

To him, it’s a Broadway stage.

He takes a long breath and turns away. His match is first on the card.

“I’m nervous,” he said.

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