Having a Brawl

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On a boiling August night, the amped-up, sweating, stinking, laughing, taunting crowd stuffed into Suite 1 of this Pinellas Park warehouse is impatient for the next fight to begin.

Two guys in the corner work diligently between wrestling bouts, like roadies at a concert or a pit crew in auto racing. Only they're not stacking amps or drilling lug nuts.

The object of their attention: a rubbery phallus, an engorged male organ in effigy, an — oh, fuck it — it's a dildo. It's a dildo, erected at full-mast on a yellow broom handle above the ropes. And it figures into the next match.

From the outside, this warehouse near U.S. 19 is as nondescript and plain as a warehouse can be. Inside, though, is the WrestlePlex, a wrestling school where, for $2,500, an aspiring grappler can go from walking through the front door completely green to his or her first show. The WrestlePlex is also a training facility, the home base of two indie organizations, the 4-year-old Independent Pro Wrestling and the inchoate Christian Wrestling Federation. On Thursday nights after practice, the WrestlePlex holds Bible study for the wrestlers.

And a couple of times a month, the WrestlePlex hosts a night of wrestling for its members, its graduates, its pupils and its trainers, right at the WrestlePlex.

This match, one of 10 on the night's card, is touted as a gimmick-on-a-pole match. It's a sideshow event in a sport that is, as sports go, something of a sideshow itself. Whether or not to call it a sport is a matter of debate — elsewhere. It's undeniably physical, even brutal. If figure skating and synchronized swimming get to be sports — after all, they're Olympic sports — then why not pro wrestling?

The crowd is swarming with white guys wearing the tired yet indefatigable mullet haircut. The referee in the ring even sports the bad-boy style, which all but shouts "Business in the front, party in the back!" And where there are bad boys, there are teenage girls, several of them tan and pretty in spaghetti-strap Ts. Rounding out the crowd are unabashed rednecks, elephantine ears projecting from shaved heads.

Announcer Shannon Rose, a Tampa wrestling media mogul with a radio show and Web site devoted to wrestling, takes the microphone. His voice effortlessly clicks into dramatic tone as he asks the crowd: "What do you want?"

"Dildo!" an enthused handful — er, group — answers. Again Rose poses his question, looking for the answer that they enthusiastically give him, each time getting louder. This is the kind of bunch who could turn a small fight into an all-out riot in an otherwise calm crowd. This business goes on for three or four refrains.

"Whoever gets to the dildo first gets to use it," Rose explains to the blood-lusting crowd.

Presumably, that person would be Snow, a.k.a. "The Snowman." He's 400 pounds of rippling flesh from Alaska. He shudders his way into the ring.

"Hey Shannon," the woman sitting next to me says, "he needs that dildo 'cause he can't see his own!"

The WrestlePlex, where this Saturday night fight card is being played, is a wrestling school, folks. It's not Sunday school, despite all the young kids in the audience.

A moment after Snow burdens the ring, the strains of "YMCA" begin to blare over the speakers. Yes, that would be the Village People song.

A guy in tight rainbow-color tie-dye Daisy Duke cutoffs comes bounding into the ring, prancing and working it for the crowd. His T-shirt's tied in a big knot in front.

Meet Snow's opponent: Phil Latio. Say it like it's one word, the "T" pronounced "sh."

Size-wise, Snow looks like a lock. Then again, a guy like Phil could presumably scrap pretty tenaciously to get his hands on the coveted dildo.

Phil Latio works the crowd, skirting the ring, sitting on guys' laps, waving, dancing. The crowd, composed mainly of bug-eyed rednecks, is surprisingly tolerant. In fact, the worst verbal abuse seems to be aimed at the fat guy. I may be reading too much into it, but it seems one wants to avoid Latio's affections. Taunting him would probably just lure him to your lap.

"Hi, everyone!" he says as his hand flops in the air, waving. He's still prancing and saying hello in the ring when the fight starts. Snow comes bounding across the ring and flattens Latio like a steam train hitting a scarecrow. Latio is slow to get up. His buttocks rise up, comically, into the air.

Snow just toys with him. But in pro-wrestling tradition, the outcome is anything but predictable.

It's a classic American story. A boy from a small, Midwestern town leaves home, seeking fame and fortune.

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