School of Really Hard Knocks

A night in the life of Ultimate University

Like Bell, everyone does double duty. The ring announcer, Peter Doyle, is also UPW's PR man. Brett "The Big Schwag"Wagner, who does commentary during the matches, is the school's administrator. Sacha Bryant, who wrestles as Savvy, used to dance professionally, so she choreographs the dancing girls. Jenny Lane, who wrestles as Looney, is in charge of photography. Her boyfriend, Chris, writes the shows as well as handles taped interviews.

"Who wants to go next?" Chris asks in the Galaxy's backstage area, where a menagerie of taut skin and bodices mills about, leathered and Lycra-ed performers looking very much like the Fantastic Four's extended family. An hour earlier, these wrestlers wore jeans and T-shirts; now they're going through their moves, slipping into character, making nervous small talk and avoiding eye contact.

Josh Dempsey has become "Who's Your Daddy," garbed in vinyl pants and showing off his new removable gold tooth cap. Cassandra Ferragamo is in a cape and cowl and answers to Sadyst. Aaron Aguilera, who lives in Santa Ana and wrestles as the Hardcore Kid, paces upstairs in cutoff jeans and a wife-beater tank. He speaks only to his manager/father, El Jefe, a badass dude in dark glasses, a fedora and a beard. The Hardcore Kid will go on first, and there is a bit of trepidation whenever he does because the Hardcore Kid wants so badly to make it to the WWF that more than a few are concerned he'll kill himself getting there. Of course, there have been times when Bassman would gladly have done the job for him.

When Aguilera showed up at Ultimate University a year ago, one of the first things they told him is that the two most important things are how a wrestler enters the ring and how he leaves it—that, and he had to gain about 100 pounds. When the match between the Suicide Kid and Hardcore Kid opens the show, Hardcore does a back flip over the top rope into the ring. The match starts a little slow, each of the wrestlers struggling to synchronize his movements. Though results are predetermined, matches are not scripted step by step. "Impossible," says Bassman. "In an eight-minute match, there might be several hundred moves you'd have to know. You'd have to memorize each one. And what would happen if you forgot one? Can't do it. There's no second take once you're out there. You screw up, and everyone knows it."

Instead, wrestlers are taught that a match is not unlike what goes on between jazz musicians. Each wrestler knows where the piece begins and where it must ultimately end, and each knows that in between, he'll be allowed to showcase his own skills and talents. But there are myriad improvisational possibilities that will affect how they get to the end, possibilities that depend on the wrestlers' read of the crowd and each other. They must quickly and simultaneously and without a word come to an agreement on what is working and what is not, what to embellish and what to scuttle.

Hardcore and Suicide finally begin to work well together, and the action picks up, continuing in and out of the ring. Hardcore comes back, beats up Suicide, and looks to be in control when El Jefe steps onto the ring's apron with a metal folding chair. Hardcore maneuvers the nearly unconscious Suicide toward El Jefe, who will finish the job. But as he swings the chair, Suicide—who was only faking!—spins out of the hold, and El Jefe instead cracks Hardcore on the top of the head. Down goes Hardcore; up goes Suicide's hand.

If you ask Bassman which of his wrestlers has the chance to make it the biggest, he'll tell you it's Aguilera—he has a great look, he works hard, and he learns quickly. After the match, Aguilera is sitting on the gate of a pickup truck behind the Galaxy, steam rising from his head, his voice low and tired. He's asked how he made the trick with the chair work.

"I got hit in the head with it." But how did he do it without getting hurt? "I got hit in the head with the chair. It hurt." But how did he manage not to get seriously injured when it appeared that El Jefe put everything he had into that swat? "He did put everything into it. I wanted him to. It's got to be real. I really got hit by that. I've seen some guys on WWF glance the blow at the last second with their hand, but that just isn't as good. So I just take the hit. I got hit in the head with a chair."

With guys like Aguilera, it's never a question of desire. The problem with Aguilera is that he wants it so much. A few weeks ago, Bassman burst into a locker room and had to be restrained from attacking Aguilera, though the wrestler has about a foot on him. During the match that night, Aguilera had gotten on the top rope and jumped into the crowd. Spectacular, but absolutely forbidden. With insurance considerations and personal-injury attorneys, it's the kind of thing that could wreck a promoter.

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