School of Really Hard Knocks

A night in the life of Ultimate University

"I saw him take off, and I said, 'Oh, my God!'" Bassman recalls.

Aguilera barely missed a kid in the front row, but he landed on Gabrielle Bassman, Rick's wife, injuring her shoulder. Aguilera himself broke his head open when he struck a metal railing.

"I almost beat the crap out of him," says Bassman.

You can make a very good living as a professional wrestler on a major circuit, and not just from wrestling. There are the movie and commercial roles, the T-shirts, action dolls and posters. Instructor Nils Stewart has appeared in hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials, in which, he estimates, he's died 86 times, killed 69 people and raped 20 women. But to get to that point, you have to get noticed, and competition for getting noticed has become fierce.

"When I started, guys would come to wrestling after they washed out of football," Stewart says. "Now you've got guys deciding between football and wrestling because a lot of them can make more money wrestling."

As the money grows, so do the expectations—and some wrestlers' willingness to do whatever it takes. Some, like Stewart, think wrestlers should organize to protect themselves—not only against unscrupulous promoters but also against their own dangerous desperation to do anything it takes to make it to the big time. The night Stewart starred in the title role of an NBC movie about Jesse Ventura, he watched the news that followed. Its lead story was that pro wrestler Owen Hart had been killed in a fall trying to make a dramatic entrance.

"It's got to stop," he says. Then again, while filming the Ventura movie, Stewart injured himself, tearing his groin muscle away from the bone, he says with a kind of pleased detachment. He told no one and wrestled three more days in that condition. "Thank heaven for Percodan," he says.

Ask Aguilera his biggest concern, and it's not safety—it's his weight. The tall, rather slim kid—an all-league high school basketball player who went on to play at Santa Ana College and then Chapman University—is still slim and still being told he needs another 100 pounds on his frame. "I try," he says. "I eat six meals a day. I work out every day. But . . ." He pinches at a gut with nothing to pinch. As you might expect, some have suggested steroids. He refuses. He figures doing the work will get him over. He not only works Bassman's UPW shows but also carnivals and Navy bases. He did some work on the Lucha Libre circuit that plays to predominantly Latino fans and depends less on show and size and more on technique.

But American-style wrestling is where the money is. "You know, I really don't think people care how big you are," he says. "I think they want to see someone laying it all out, out there. That should be enough.

"I just want to support my family, but I want to do it the right way," he adds. "I don't want to cheat. I want my family to be proud of me, proud of the way I did it."

As if on cue, his father, El Jefe, still wearing his dark glasses and fedora, comes to collect him. He puts his arm around him, and the two of them—El Jefe and the Hardcore Kid—walk to their car.

As the Kid is leaving, Savvy and Looney—the latter dressed like a Catholic schoolgirl gone bad—are headed onstage, accompanying "Who's Your Daddy" Dempsey. Each is excited because they won't just be acting as valets (those who escort the fighters into the ring)—tonight they'll end up tussling themselves. This is an "angle," something that appears unplanned and spontaneous and extends the storyline.

Wrestling women have become much more popular on the big circuits. Perhaps after having been inundated with 300-pound dudes, audiences appreciate the grace of young, powerful women in the ring. That, or maybe people just like to watch hot chicks whuppin' ass.

Whatever: the popularity has filtered down, so much so that Bassman believes his female students—and there are several—have an even better chance of making the circuit than their male counterparts. In fact, tonight he'll announce that one of them, Caryn Mower, who wrestles as Carnidge, has just been signed by the WWF. He'll call Mower into the ring to be congratulated by the WWF's female champion, Ivory. Ivory will hug her and offer to let her hold Ivory's WWF championship belt. When Mower reaches for it, Ivory—who was only faking!—draws back and belts Mower with it. Welcome to the big time.

For Bryant and Lane, wrestling is not a lark or a way to earn a shot at NFL cheerleading. In fact, each recently got a tryout with the WWF. They really want to do this, and each is uniquely qualified. Bryant's background as a gymnast and a dancer makes her a natural for many of her moves in the ring. She's 5-foot-6, 110 pounds, and finds wrestling more demanding than anything else she's done athletically or professionally. Right now what she does professionally is substitute teach. True to the made-for-TV movie her story seems destined to become, she keeps her wrestling a secret from anyone in school.

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