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!"

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.

"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.

"Almost every day, I'll hear the boys talking about wrestlers or moves, and yeah, there are times I want to jump in and say, 'No, that guy isn't any good' or, 'This is how you do that,'" she says. "But I know I can't. So I just listen and smile to myself."

Like Bassman—who, when he was growing up in the Valley, looked forward to the days his father would take him to matches at the Grand Olympic Auditorium—Lane has always loved wrestling. She counts meeting superstar Sean Michaels as one of the great thrills of her life. "It's just something about kicking butt," she says, her right hand pumping like a hatchet in the manner of dictators or wrestling managers.

Bassman met Lane a few months ago when he was beginning to put on the shows in the gym. In front of 35 people, Lane "was in the front row jumping up and down and getting everyone into it. I said, 'Get that girl.' I told her she had to be in the show." That's all she needed to hear.

All Cassandra Ferragamo needed to hear was that there was an outlet for her. A cousin of former Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo, Ferragamo had always liked to fight. Even as a kid, she'd fight anyone, any time. "I don't know, I guess it has something to do with genes," she says.

Even after she grew up and started her own business—Electric Chair in Huntington Beach—she still took the time to kickbox because she craved combat. Then she found out about UPW and jumped in. She says her persona in the ring, Sadyst, has "deep-rooted hate" and is "a total bad guy." She takes great pride in the fact that she has yet to wrestle a woman; she fights only guys—and she wins. "She takes over on guys, and they do her bidding," she says.

Ferragamo is easily the intensest of the bunch, perhaps because she feels as if wrestling is what she was meant to do. While others mention money and fame, she only talks about fighting. "I want fighting to be my life," she says.

"Who's Your Daddy" Dempsey is stepping out with his ladies. He's wearing dark glasses and plastic pants and his gold-plated front tooth as he enters the ring. He stares out into the crowd, which is divided on whether to cheer or jeer him. "Who's Your Daddy" Dempsey is "a pimp who's got to be pimpin' hos," says Dempsey of his wrestling persona. He says it again and again with the grin of a kid given license to say a bad word. He's giddy that he gets to be the bad guy—wrestlers generally abhor being cast as a good guy, a "face"—even though it was his wife, Jennifer, who came up with the bad-guy character. Jennifer and their son, Mark, usually attend his matches, but tonight Jennifer is studying for a nursing exam. Mark? "Couldn't make it—Bible camp."

Developing a compelling character and being able to communicate that character over a microphone is probably the single most important requirement of big-time wrestling. While it's the crashing of bodies that jumps off the screen, it's the back stories that give weight and context to the violence and drive the action not only in the ring one night but also into the next match on another. What keeps people coming back is what wrestling folk call "heat"—what you theater types know as dramatic tension. The audience has to care about who's being beaten or who's doing the beating.

Dempsey is huge, a Thomas Hart Benton painting come to life. If he wasn't a former heavyweight boxer—he's the grandson of legendary heavyweight Jack Dempsey—he'd be cast as one. He has a tendency to leave his mouth open and stare, sometimes looking so hard at you that it's difficult to decipher whether he's intent on listening to you or hating your guts—the latter being a bad thing because he was ranked fourth by the International Boxing Federation. In fact, he's a very gentle guy. He loves the character of "Who's Your Daddy," in part because it is his opposite. The idea of playing a flamboyant, fast-living, dangerous ladies' man is heady stuff for someone who doesn't drink and who is hurt when patrons at the South Bay bar where he works as a bouncer assume his slurred speech is the product of one too many beers. "They'll ask me if I'm fucked-up," he says, glaring. "I can't help it. I can't help it."

In some ways, Dempsey became a boxer to continue his grandfather's legacy. From age 17 to 24, he ran at dawn and trained eight hours per day. He went to bed at 9 p.m. to get up at 4:30 a.m. He ate right, he drank right: no alcohol, no caffeine. Nights, he worked as a waiter. He did everything he could, though not as much as his grandfather—a man so obsessed with becoming heavyweight champion that, growing up in Colorado, he soaked his fists in horse urine to make them tough and pickled his face with brine to prevent it from bleeding when punched.

But Dempsey was eager enough. In 1998, the last year of his boxing career, he took 10 fights—"too many," he says, and it was. When you fight 10 fights, you train for 10 fights. Each fight means a regimen of jarring your brain running 10 miles per day. It means sparring a minimum of four rounds per day. With nearly one fight each month, "my brain never got a chance to heal," Dempsey says in the manner of one ruing the fate of a pet cat run over by a truck. It was that last year that he noticed his speech was slowing. Worried he would end up like the punch-drunk fighters of old Warner Bros. movies, he quit. But what was left to him was waiting tables and working as a bouncer.

"I wasn't making any real money, and I have a family to support," he says. "Besides, I have to admit I'm the kind of person who likes being in the spotlight. I like having people look at me."

At Ultimate University, he applied the same energy he had to boxing. Bassman, who sees his share of big guys who are soon shipped out—"The No. 1 thing is attitude"—loves that about him. But he doesn't like "Who's Your Daddy."

"The character is nothing like him," he says. "The best characters are based in some way on the wrestler's own personality, even if it's a complete exaggeration. That way there's always a ring of truthfulness to it.

"Josh has such a presence—and, let's face it, a legacy—that I think eventually, he'll create a character that is closer to that. But I'm not worried. The important thing now is for him to get comfortable with working the crowd. There are a lot of guys who are real big today who had to go through four or five characters before they hit on something that worked."

"I really like this," Dempsey says. "When I boxed, I used to dance into the ring because I was trying to trick my mind into believing I was going to have fun—instead of going to get hit a lot in the head by some guy I didn't even know and I was going to try and beat him up even though I had nothing against him. This is a hundred times better."

The Galaxy show ends with Bassman climbing into the ring and taking the unusual step of asking all of the evening's performers to join him. He explains that he's doing this because Mower and Sylvester Terkay, who wrestles as a psycho hillbilly, have gotten the call to go to the big leagues, the WWF. He speaks with emotion of this group of people who work so hard together. He asks the audience to give them a big hand, and for a moment, the wrestling troupe looks like a Broadway cast on closing night, bowing and waving as the crowd stands.

It was a good show. One by one, the wrestlers leave the ring and head to the lobby to sign autographs and sell T-shirts until there is no one left in the ring but Josh Dempsey, dancing softly in the light.�

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