School of Really Hard Knocks

A night in the life of Ultimate University

Photo by Myles RobinsonIt's a couple of hours before showtime, and the wrestling ring in the Galaxy Concert Theatre is gridlocked—with dancing couples. They hold hands, they lift and spin out of holds, repeating moves two, three, four times, making adjustments—I'll slam you here, you pile-drive me there, what do you think about spitting in my face?—getting things right. This is one of the first things they teach you at Ultimate University: your opponent is your best friend. Though you will get on the microphone and say terrible things about his family and posture, though you will promise to CRUSH! and POUND! and send him BACK TO MOMMA IN A PINE BOX! it's your opponent who will sell you to the audience and, hopefully, to the scouts of the major wrestling circuits, the wildly successful World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). When you throw a punch, it's your opponent who determines how it looks: Does he overplay it and expose you to ridicule? Does he underplay it and make you look like a wimp?

Does he sell it?

You are always selling. You sell whatever you can. The way you look, the way you wrestle, the way you talk on the stick—what you and I might call the microphone. You sell pain, and you sell injustice—few things sell as well as good failing to triumph, though it's even better when good gets cracked in the face with a chair.

Each wrestler's reason for selling is different. For Josh Dempsey, his speech left slurred by a ferocious, truncated boxing career, it's a last shot at the spotlight. For Cassandra Ferragamo, it's because she just really likes beating up guys. Whatever the reason, it's never easy. Yes, results are determined before matches, but there is no way to fake the damage done to a 280-pound man jumping from a 5-foot rope and dropping 7 feet onto a plywood floor.

"The audience may know it's fake," says longtime wrestler and Ultimate University instructor Nils Stewart, "but the cartilage in your knee doesn't."

Rick Bassman, who is not a wrestler but does look like Ming the Merciless' junior high school photo, sells the hardest. He is Stewart's boss, and he runs Ultimate University, where the wrestlers in tonight's show at the Galaxy train. He also runs Ultimate Pro Wrestling (UPW), the wrestling circuit that puts on these shows every couple of weeks. And he runs Ultimate Management Group, the company that represents wrestlers once they make it to the big time—a goal that Ultimate University and UPW have been exceptionally successful at achieving: five of his wrestlers—students at his Huntington Beach school and/or participants in his wrestling shows—graduated to the WWF in less than one year; another two are expected to sign by January. That accounts for the fact that wrestlers from across the country now come to Bassman's school in Huntington Beach's L.A. Boxing to learn not only how to take a punch but also how to talk on the stick, develop a character, act on the road and handle money. They come because if you make the big time, six-, seven- or even eight-figure paydays await.

Short, bald and stern, Bassman has owned clubs and managed bands, worked PR and acted as a Hollywood talent agent. He was the guy who marketed the Denver Broncos' "Three Amigos" receiving corps in the late '80s. He had a lot of things lined up for them after the 1988 Super Bowl—shots on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show—but that ended when the Washington Redskins trounced the Broncos 42-10.

"I'd call to confirm the appearances, and they'd ask, 'The Three Who?'" Bassman recalls painfully. "Back then, I'd put all my eggs in one basket. Now I've got eggs all over the place."

And so now there is Ultimate University, UPW and Ultimate Management Group. There's a Web site (www.ultimateprowrestling.com) where people can order merchandise or watch pay-per-view matches coming up in February and 15-minute matches each weekday at noon. Tonight, Bassman is helping a documentary-film unit get footage for a reality-based TV series, a kind of Real World Goes Grappling.

But all that, Bassman knows, comes from selling it live. Everything flows from putting on a good show. And though most in tonight's crowd—a mix of kids, clubbies and guys who look like they stopped in on their way to the neighboring Home Depot—realize they're attending wrestling's equivalent of barber school, they've still paid $12.50 per ticket. They still want a show.

That begins a couple of hours later when the dancing girls come and go and Mike "Mad Dog" Bell struts toward the ring. Mad Dog is UPW's heavyweight champion, and his arrival thrills some—like the regulars at ringside holding a banner that reads "Chew 'Em Up, Mad Dog"—and mystifies the rest, who figure Bell should not quit his day job. Bell's day job is writing wrestling scenarios for the UPW, which might explain why he's the champ —or, as the regulars down in front put it, "YOU'RE A FAT PIG!"

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