Article from fwweekly.com. It's the coverstory from the March 11-18 1999 issue. IN A WORLD OF HURT A nice-guy college student lets his butt get kicked every week in hopes of reaching the major leagues of wrestling.
by P.A. Humphrey
They move around the floor, two massive men in Spandex shorts, glaring at each other through twin curtains of long, long wavy hair, one light and one dark. They've been going at it for more than an hour, now, and both are panting. Droplets of sweat spray around the ring whenever they make contact. The black-haired one - the one who calls himself Gravedigger - bounces off the ropes and makes a lunge for his opponent, who deftly moves to the side and clotheslines him, slamming him across the throat with a forearm wider than most men's legs. Gravedigger's head snaps back and he goes down hard, feet in the air, legs flailing.
With a smirk, the teacher - he calls himself Mark Von Erich, although he's not part of the legendary Fritz Von Erich clan - falls onto his knees and grabs Gravedigger in a headlock. "Give up?" Von Erich taunts. But Gravedigger isn't played out yet. He flips the teacher over his head and slams him into the mat. "Ughhh!" Von Erich groans convincingly. Gravedigger, on his feet now, delivers a quick kick to his head.
They don't look like they're faking it.
Cowtown Gym, where wrestling veteran Von Erich has recently begun offering classes, is the setting for this weekly ritual of pain and abuse. This is no yuppie juice-bar fitness center, but a real gym - lots of ominous-looking metal equipment, stacks of weights, a faintly musty smell, and a clientele of unsmiling, straining, sweating hunks and hunkettes. No plush carpet on these floors, just cold linoleum. The white walls are covered with posters advertising body building and weight lifting competitions. Posters of a very pumped Arnold Swartzenegger in his prime dot the walls of the weight room, probably for inspiration. In a small cubbyhole at the back, with barely enough room to walk around it, is the wrestling/boxing ring. The only other fixtures are a pair of punching bags hanging from the ceiling behind it, beneath a sole, ceiling-high window.
There is an electricity in the room now. With every move, the metal-against-metal squeals of the ring's frame reverberate through the building. The noise only adds to the tension in the air. People passing by the doorway stop to watch. A couple of braver souls wander over to put a hand to the mat or to test the strength of the plastic-covered ropes. The floor of the ring is hard, they are surprised to discover, not the bouncy trampoline-type surface they expected but more like plywood covered by a heavy blanket. Any bouncing and squealing the ring is doing is caused by two, 250-pound men running, jumping and being thrown onto it.
The combatants are up again, glaring at each other, circling, each looking for an opening to grab and grapple the other into submission. Their teeth are bared and their eyes are angry. Gravedigger envelopes Von Erich in a bear hug, forcing him backward toward the corner, his hand clutching a tangle of Von Erich's brownish-blonde hair. "Let go of my hair, don't pull my hair," the teacher snarls. "Cheater. I didn't teach him that. He learned it somewhere else." Von Erich seems furious. "You wanna pull hair? I can pull hair," he growls, shoving Gravedigger backward, wrapping a gigantic arm around his neck and grabbing a handful of black hair. He shoves his student across the ring and back into the opposite corner, forcing his head back. Then, backing away slightly, he swings him around, picks him up, lifts him over his head, and body slams him to the floor. Gravedigger lands flat on his back. The air is forced out of him in a "whoof." He sits up slowly, shaking the wooziness out of his head.
"I knew he was a wrestler the first time I saw him," Von Erich says, panting. Grave-digger just made the honor roll.
In the world of entertainment, professional wrestling has always been something of a step-child - part sports and part show biz - with neither camp willing to grant it legitimacy. Years ago, in the golden age of the "sport," wrestling had the reputation of being the lowest of low-brow entertainment forms, designed with the blue-collar Joe in mind. The "marks," as wrestlers call their audiences, were expected to believe every single body blow, muttered threat and menacing growl.
The fans today are different, those who have spent years in the business say, although there are still plenty of little old ladies in polyester pants breathless for a chance to curse their favorite bad guys. Many of today's fans are college-educated professionals, business executives, students - people you'd be more likely to see at a museum or art gallery than a gym. "The stereotype of the tattooed and toothless wrestling fan is false and always has been," says Ken Taylor, who got into the game in the 1960s working alongside the legendary Fritz Von Erich at Dallas' Sportatorium. "We have doctors, lawyers, even some guy who says he owns a water park, who come to our show.
"People come for one reason - they want to be there," says Taylor, a promoter for NWA-SW (National Wrestling Alliance Southwest), which recently began staging weekly Friday night matches at the Texas Indoor Speedway Arena in North Richland Hills. The matches, broadcast as NWA Worldwide Wrestling in 126 U.S. markets, air locally on KDLT, Channel 55, at 10 p.m. Sundays. The NWA is like a farm system, a minor league for the big national federations, he says. "Wrestling is the best stuff out there, entertainment-wise, today," Taylor says. "It is the Jerry Springer Show of the sports world. Why is Springer No. 1? There are much better shows out there. It's because he's tapped into something that people have a natural interest in - conflict. They know somebody is gonna get into somebody else's face and maybe throw a punch at them. Conflict, that's the magnetism of it. It's an escape. People have their jobs and their families and their worries. You go to watch wrestling, man, you just want to see something off-the-wall crazy."
Whether inspired by nostalgia the campy tackiness of tv tabloids or both, more and more people are escaping to this "off-the-wall crazy" stuff. Televised matches regularly outpoll Monday Night Football and wrestling has the largest fan base of any "sport" in the country, according to numerous publications including the New York Post, USA Today and the New York Daily News. Wrestling's practitioners, the big-leaguers like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg and Dan "The Beast" Severn have become household names.
To most fans, the "big leagues" means one of the big two national wrestling leagues, the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and its Monday night WWF Raw program, and the WCW (World Championship Wrestling) and its Monday offering, Nitro.
Between them, they attract an estimated 40 million American television viewers each week. They are so popular, Thursday night shows were added and now Saturday and Sunday daytime and prime time shows are being aired. Most of the time, seven to eight of the week's 10 top-rated cable shows are wrestling programs.
"Last Monday night, Raw did a 6.4 rating," Taylor says. "When they ran over at 10 p.m., it went to 7.6. That's like going off the Richter scale in the tv world. Collectively Raw and Nitro did an 11.1. That's almost unheard of. There have been Super Bowls that didn't get a rating that high." Ratings translate to the percentage of televisions across the country that are tuned into that show.
The Internet is full of websites devoted to professional wrestling. wrestlers are turning up on popular network television shows; toy stores carry dolls, games, backpacks and other kiddie fare bearing the likenesses of the new bad boys of the entertainment world; plans to build a string of WWF-themed restaurants have been announced; fan clubs devoted to one pumped-up hero or another have sprung up around the world.
"Playboy did a cover article on [lady WWF wrestler] Sable and had to put a warning on the Internet that they'd come after anybody who tried to sell the pictures," Taylor says. "Steve Austin is showing up on Regis and Kathie Lee, Letterman, Leno. He's about to do a Walker, Texas Ranger.These guys are like royalty."
For the ones who make it big, wrestling can be a multi-million-dollar career, and that's just in endorsements alone. While pro wrestling has gone Hollywood, however, the guys and gals who make their living slamming, throwing and throttling each other, are what they've always been - blue-collar joes looking for a way to a better life. America's obsession with the Rambos, the ordinary, not-too-bright-but-plenty-tough guys who overcome the odds, might just explain wrestling's attraction. What else can turn a kid from Azle (or Euless or the near South Side) with nothing much going for him but some bulk, a little athletic ability, and a penchant for showing off, into a hero - not to mention a millionaire - almost overnight?
"What [the WWF and the WCW] do is, they need a certain type of character, a certain type of wrestler, and they will check out the regional leagues out there," says Gravedigger, who really is a nice kid from Azle, "and they'll just pluck somebody out and make him a star."
In the meantime, though, there are the parking lot matches, the charity fundraisers, the get-your-name-out-there-free-for-alls in small, dank auditoriums and dusty arenas. And there is the training, seven, eight, nine hours a week. Lift, run, pump, sweat. Work out to keep that body that might, just might, be the key to a terrific future. And, so the lessons continue. The imaginary audiences cheer. The body slams to the floor again and again. And the dream, hopefully, comes a little bit closer to reality.
In his publicity photo, Gravedigger looks scary enough to earn a leading part in a Stephen King miniseries. He stands, clad in black jeans and boots, between two tall gravestones. His black hair hangs in two straggly clumps, nearly to his waist; his dark eyes glower at the camera. The muscles stand out on his bare arms. In his hands, he holds a pickax. He doesn't look like he's faking.
His real name is Keith Plemons, and when he grins his gap-toothed grin, however, all vestiges of Gravedigger disappear - his eyes no longer grim, the black mane pulled back in a ponytail, the three silver barbells that pierce his left eyebrow and the bar through his tongue looking not so much perverse as trendy. "You see this?" he says, tugging at a hank of long black hair hanging from the taped corner of the top rope, like a scrawny horse tail. "That's very little compared to what I lose every match." There is a kind of wonder in his voice.
A former Azle High football and baseball star, he seems, in fact, like the country boy he says he is: "I get so irritated with the traffic. If I ever get married and settle down, I'd like to move back to the country, Azle or maybe Weatherford." Yes, Keith Plemons is just a country boy who happens to have the build and the natural hamminess to make a living brawling in his briefs. "You can't be shy at all and walk out there the first time in your Speedos," he says, with a laugh. "The first night, I stood there in front of the mirror and asked myself, 'Are you sure you really want to do this?' " Plemons' first match - he has had about two dozen now - came about sort of by accident. It was also before the biggest house he's played to so far, 1,200-1,500 people. He accompanied Von Erich to a match in Alexandria, Va., to check out the scene and meet some people in the wrestling world, Plemons says. When they got to the hotel, however, Von Erich got a call from the promoter. One of the wrestlers on the card handn't shown up. Did he know someone who could fill in? Von Erich offered Plemons. "He said I was ready. So, I talked to the promoter and he said, 'We want you to be a good guy,'" Plemons says. "But, when I walked in, he said, 'You didn't tell me you look like a vampire.' I wrestled as 'Nightmare,' I didn't even have a name yet." His opponent was Bubba Malone, "The Cajun Brawler," a local favorite villain. "He was a hometown boy, you know, and his family and friends were there," he said. "I was the bad guy." Plemons lost. He got a paycheck for $10 and he was a pro. (Name acts like Von Erich can make as much as $200-$300 a night.)
When he began training, Plemons went into the ring with Von Erich a couple of times a week for 12 weeks. Now the sessions are down to once a week. He also does weight training two or three times a week.
"At first, my torso would hurt when I would breathe," he says. "After the first two weeks, my body toughened up. That's why it's so important to get good training. In the beginning he just kept knocking me down, every time I got up, he'd throw me down, five, 10 times in a row. I didn't really get it at the time. I thought he was trying to kill me, or just wanted someone to beat up. I see now what he was doing."
Nobody buys the line that wrestling isn't fake any more, but the fakery extends only to a point, Plemons says. The kicks, the headlocks, the punches are fake but the secret really lies in knowing what your opponent is going to do, knowing how to react, knowing how to fall, and toughening up your body enough to be able to take the punishment, he says. "There's a counter move to every move. Like if someone has you in a power lock, you step to one side, duck under and then you've got him," he says. "If you don't know the counter move, you're stuck. You just take it. And when you're wrestling against a 300-pound guy, like I did last week, you are gonna take some punishment no matter what you do."
There's not much you can do to counter a body slam, he says. "You know it's comin'. You're supposed to relax your body, but I don't. I 'grrrrrr,' tense up. You try to fall flat, on your back, so that your weight is equal on all parts of your body. If he throws you on your shoulder, though, there's not a lot you can do about that. You are gonna land and it's gonna hurt. I get so pumped up when I'm in there, though, I don't even feel it. Not until later."
Injuries, blown knees, broken ankles, shattered wrists, damaged backs are part of the business, the wrestlers say. "Every guy in the dressing room has knee braces and ankle braces and elbow braces," Plemons says. "I've had black eyes, knots on my head. I've been hurt, but I've never been injured. I've been lucky, I guess."
When he's not working out, getting his ass kicked in class by Mark Von Erich or dreaming of making it into the big-time, Plemons is a college student, studying at TCJC South with aspirations for a degree in engineering. He also works a 40-hour night shift at Stratoflex, a manufacturing plant in River Oaks.
A self-described late-bloomer, Plemons, 32, says the engineer thing is just a fall-back. What he really wants is to be Gravedigger, the baddest bad guy in big-time wrestling. "It's kind of like piercing or tattoos, it's addictive," he says of the sport. "When I get in front of a crowd - the first time they start chanting your name, 'Gravedigger, Gravedigger,' the kids yelling at you, 'chunk, slam, kick him' - it's ... it's awesome. You know, it's something you want to happen again." The kids have become his motivation, Plemons says. "The adults think I look scary, but not the kids. They love it," he says. "My favorite part is before the match. I get dressed early and go out and sit at a table. I sell my pictures, but I'll autograph anything for free, and the kids come around and get my autograph and want to talk to me. I love to go out there and interact with them." Such sales somewhat counteract the low pay.
Plemons was a child, himself, when he fell in love with wrestling, watching on tv, and sometimes in person at the Dallas Sportatori-um. "My mom wanted to be a professional wrestler when she was young, but she didn't know how to get started," he says. "The Fabulous Moolah was her hero. And she was in love with Cowboy Bob Ellis. Bruiser Brody was my favorite.
"Bean dip and Fritos and World Class Championship Wrestling, that was Saturday night at the Plemons household when I was a kid," he says. "The Von Erichs were running Fort Worth and Dallas and selling out every week. It was a great time." His parents drive from Waco to see and videotape every Gravedigger match, he says. "You know, at one match I got to meet Michael Hays. I got to walk up and shake his hand. I said - I know they must hate this, too, but I couldn't help it - I said, 'I remember watching you when I was a kid.' Meeting a hero of your childhood ... it doesn't get better than that."
Oh, Moolah! I worked with Moolah once, in Conroe." Plemons' childhood memories have reminded Von Erich of a memory of his own: "She's my partner. It's a mixed tag, one time it's a guy against a guy and then it's a guy against a girl - you don't slam them, you know, you just try to pin them. We're up against Bubba [Malone] and some lady wrestler. Moolah tags me, so I'm in there and I start hitting on Bubba and the referee starts yellin', 'Stop! Stop! Stop! I didn't see no tag.' Well, here comes Moolah, she's at least 60 years old - right? - and she goes by the referee, grabs me by my ears and lays a big ol' kiss on me. The crowd went nuts. It was kind of like kissin' my grandma."
Mark Von Erich has plenty of memories. The current Texas Championship Wrestling heavyweight champ, he is a veteran of 10 years in the ring. He broke into the business in Florida Championship Wrestling under former great Dusty Rhodes and worked throughout the South, including South Texas, until the 1980s, when he came to Dallas/Fort Worth and won Rookie of the Year at the Sportatorium. He proudly shows off the gold-studded championship belt that bears the likeness of wrestling legend Johnny Valentine, who held the title throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. Von Erich won't divulge his real name - "Hey, it wasn't their real name either," he says of the late, great Adkisson brothers - or his age, which the laugh lines around his eyes indicate must be close to 40. The rest of him could be 20, a carefully sculpted 20. He is huge, built up, his arms the size of normal legs, his legs so big they fill out the baggy-style jeans he wears. He has that perfect artificial tan, sparkling blue eyes, dazzling smile and long, layered hair favored by wrestling's pretty boys. Von Erich was destined to be a "face," a good guy.
Plemons is his first student. "He's in demand already," Von Erich says. "He's been well-trained. When people find out that I'm training him, they know he's gonna know what he's doing. Learning how to do it isn't the end of it, though. You have to go out there and try to get a job. If he doesn't do a good job, they won't hire him again."
Gravedigger's chances of making it to the big time are good if he works hard, says WWF marketing manager Christine Wypy. "What we look for is their athleticism and their charisma in the ring," she says. "If he's got that, there's no reason he couldn't make it."
Von Erich has a dream, too, and that's to see professional wrestling come back to its former glory in North Texas. "That's why we are working so hard to get the word out there," he says, pointing to a flyer advertising a March 27 powerlifting contest and noontime wrestling match scheduled for the Cowtown Gym parking lot. "People want to see it live," he says. "Watching it on tv is just not the same. Once they get a taste of live wrestling, they have to come back. I think the audience is there, we're just waiting for someone to tap into it."
Like Von Erich, Ken Taylor remembers the good ol' days after Fritz Von Erich took over the Sportatorium, put local wrestling on tv, and turned his five wrestler sons loose to attract sold-out houses night after night. "They wrestled five or six nights a week and they never left Texas," he says. "Locally, it was our big rise. They were pulling in a thousand, two thousand people a show; they were selling out every night. When they started dying, things kind of went downhill. It never really recovered." Now, with wrestling's popularity growing, it's time for regional wrestling to take off and along with it the careers of a few country boys from Azle and Euless and South Fort Worth, he says.
"There's no formula for success, really," he says. "The exciting thing about it is, you never know what person will come along and be the next big name in wrestling. There are a lot of millionaires working in wrestling right now who started out in some little gym somewhere."