Sunday, May 21, 2000

School teaches wrestling, and, more importantly, how to entertain

        Les Thatcher didn't even blink. His student was just slammed to the floor, had his arm twisted and his neck stomped. And he's talking about soap operas.

        “That's pro wrestling. A soap opera. I tell my kids we don't care that people know it's all show. If you're a good performer, you bring about a suspension of disbelief and suck people in. A soap.”

        He's oblivious to the thumps 200 pounds make when they hit the mat at Main Event, the Evendale pro wrestling camp where he trains hopefuls for a career in the ring.

        Thwuump. Another body.

  Les Thatcher's Main Event and its production company, Heartland Wrestling Assoc., have two events this week:
  • Brian Pillman Memorial. Named for the late Bengals linebacker who evolved into pro wrestler Flyin' Brian, it's 16 matches with Thatcher's wrestlers plus stars — Diamond Dallas Page, Big Sexy Kevin Nash, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Raven, Justin Credible — from all three federations. 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Xavier University's Schmidt Fieldhouse; wrestlers are available 4-6 p.m. for photos. $30 ringside, $20 general admission at Ticketron. Benefits the Pillman family.
  • Mark Curtis Memorial Fantasy Camp. Named for the referee who died last September, it's for thrill seekers who want to learn how it's done. Thatcher's students plus Benoit, Malenko, D-Lo Brown, Road Dogg, Guerrero and others will teach basic moves 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday (lunch and dinner included), Quality Inn Evendale. $550, with proceeds benefiting Curtis' family. Call 771-1650.
        The 6-year-old school has produced about 20 pros, and has been featured on MTV's Real Life, ABC's 20-20 and a wrestling special on MSNBC.

        Thwaack. Slapped chest.

        Trace that success to the 58-year-old Thatcher. A 40-year veteran of the industry, he spent 20 years body-slamming through the Southeast, then did play-by-play.

        He's sharing that with 20 students tonight. Students like Matt Stryker, a 24-year-old grad who went pro 18 months ago but returns to work out. Known as a heel (dirty fighter), he has broken a sweat thwaacking 19 unfortunate souls into the ropes, then jumping them.

        “I was the spot, calling the match, because heels almost always do. The moves look hard, but they aren't. Calling is the hard part.”

        Calling? Mr. Thatcher explains: “Two guys in there. One is the leader and calls the audibles — telling the opponent what to do next, like a quarterback.

        “Say he has someone in a headlock. He might say, "I shoot you in; you duck clothesline, shoot back and slam.' He's saying "I release the headlock, throw you into the ropes; you bounce off, duck my clothesline (outstretched arm, throat level), fly into the ropes, bounce into me, then go down.'

        “He's choreographing what moves to make when — and he has to know how to make one flow from the last.

        “Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have said that. If someone asked if it's fake, I'd say, "you wanna go outside and find out?' But today, it's sports entertainment.”

        Doesn't look entertaining for Cody Hawk, a babyface (clean fighter) and pro who graduated four years ago and now helps run training sessions. He has just been under a heel's heel.

        Anything hurt?

        “Sometimes you get sore, but we emphasize safety,” says Mr. Hawk. “The thing with training here is you get good and you get contracts, because of Les' reputation. I've been booked just because he said I was good.”

        Smaaaaack. Mr. Stryker flies out of the ring head first, jumps to his feet and agrees: “The school is that good, bar none. It's the reason we got the WCW contract.”

        Main Event recently signed a training and development deal with World Championship Wrestling, one of the three dominant federations on the circuit. WCW wrestlers can start at $100,000 and climb to the millions.

        The alternative is the independent circuit where, Mr. Hawk says, “you make very little money, but you get experience and a chance to work up to a federation.”

        Meanwhile, out in the ring, a greenhorn is whispering: Lock up; thump; slam; thwack; arm drag; crash; leg drop; whoooomp. He's calling the match, but hasn't learned to do it quietly enough for opponents, but not spectators, to hear.

        Thwuump. A heel just flung Jesse Guilmette over the top rope. He's almost finished training and ready for the independent circuit.

        “It looks like it hurts, but it doesn't,” says Mr. Guilmette. “We know how to land and what's next so we can brace.”

        Landings are always feet first, so the boot sole, not the human back, slams the mat and makes the noise.

        “There are hundreds of moves they have to learn,” Thatcher says, “how to make them and how to take them. When they don't learn, I get in their face. I yell, I scream, I let it out. They know what I think, and I don't get an ulcer.”

        In Main Event's six-month, $2,500 course training comes in phases: First, basics on how to take a fall and how to break a fall, but not a body. Then, it's holds, throws and variations.

        “Then the hard part,” Thatcher says, “Psychology. Understanding that you're a storyteller, communicating by using body and movement. This is where you learn to string things together — what fall to call, which hold to use — on the fly.

        “We can teach a dolt to do a moonsault (back flip off the top rope). We can't teach him to know when and where to fit it in a match. That's why you can say what you want about these guys, but you can't say they're dumb jocks.”

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