"You suck," a little girl wearing a sundress leaning over a chain-link fence, screams at a muscular, bald man.
She doesn't know the man, at least who he really is. He's a heel - one of the villainous wrestlers of C4W Explosive Wrestling in Myrtle Beach. In real life he's a firefighter. But in the ring, he's a dirty politician, known as Tom Trust.
Tom Trust turns, gets right in the little girl's face and snarls back, "It's your fault we lost, little girl."
This is a regular occurrence at the X Sports Complex in Myrtle Beach where C4W holds wrestling events two Saturday evenings a month.
The indy circuit
C4W is one of 50 smaller wrestling divisions that make up the AIWF - Allied Independent Wrestling Federations. The C4W is owned by AC Collins, who is also part owner in the AIWF. In addition to the entertainment side of the business, he also runs a school for wrestlers at the X Sports Complex, training anyone interested in all aspects of the professional version of the sport.
Collins has been in the business for 15 years and worked tirelessly, taking his bumps along the way, to get his new beach brand of brawling off the ground. He and one of his wrestlers, The Menace aka Carl Raimondo, set up all the chain-link fences and sports equipment housed at the X - which also incorporates indoor basketball, dodge ball, volleyball, soccer, a full-service gym and rental space for special events such as birthday parties. They also built the ring and backdrop where C4W's action happens, which has been dubbed the C4W Arena.
The others involved in running the show for C4W are a cast of colorful characters. The promoter, Charlie Nash, is a firefighter with the Horry County Fire Department. But his alter-ego is Tom Trust, the aforementioned heel the little girl was taunting.
Rob Hochman is the CEO of the C4W - both in and out of the ring - he plays a Vince McMahon-type. He enters and exits the ring with a scantily dressed woman on his arm, also known in wrestling circles as a valet. "CEO Rob" can be considered a "Tweener" - meaning, a character that can be either a hero or a villain.
The running storyline is Hochman's battle for control over the C4W...which is being challenged by the dirty politician, Tom Trust. Confused yet? Well just wait... Owner Collins is also a whole cast of masked or make-up adorned wrestlers himself - he's a Japanese assassin, a clown, a hippie, a punk-rocker, a whatever he wants to be on any given night.
Grant DuBose is the ring announcer/emcee...aka the guy who wears the tux and really keeps the crowd involved in the ongoing feuds that can become confusing to a novice of the C4W. DuBose is VP of Operations at Carrell Homes and honed his microphone chops in standup comedy. Recently, he won the open mike competition at Comedy Cabana on Restaurant Row.
CJ Awesome aka CarniValle aka Chris James is an ex-carney and a manager. CarniValle wants to bring a PT Barnum mentality to the ring.
Referee, Slowboy Stephen, works in the ring but more than that, he is constantly promoting the C4W, updating Facebook and hitting the streets, spreading the word as real life alter ego, Stephen Tyndall.
That's the thing - these guys are captains of multitasking...all of them. During the week, they're beating the pavement, talking to people, handing out flyers, making phone calls, while still working their day jobs. They pay the bills by working at Wal-Mart, the YMCA, sunglasses retailers, the fire department and vacuum dealerships. Then, twice a month, they are running lights, working the sound, setting up chairs, all before DuBose calls their name and they climb in the ring to act out their testosterone filled soap opera before a live audience.
A brightly colored gang packs into a dressing room that isn't much bigger than a cargo van. Two benches on either side - men adjust their wigs, apply their makeup, situate their spandex.
Roughly 15 wrestlers make up the rotation, most of which hearken back to the golden age of professional wrestling. Heroic characters that typify sports-entertainment are prevalent - a soldier fighting for a flag, the biker, a falsely accused ex-con, a clown, the acrobatic ninja. The heels are everything the common man hates - corrupt politicians and corporate cronies, death and taxes.
During the matches, there is plenty of action. Turnbuckle leaps, foreign objects flying, cheats and superhuman comebacks are all on display.
"Everything they do in the major leagues, we are doing, just as well, right here," says Dylan Kage, who wrestles under his almost real name...it's originally spelled Cage with a C. He's the closest thing to a wrestler's local union spokesman as you can get. He's a crowd favorite - a babyface or baby or face, which in wrestling terminology means good guy. He's eloquent and knows his history, recalling the names and the signature moves of the legends. Collins and Kage both made comments about how much Japanese audiences love Dylan Kage's Native American, "Lumbee Nation" character. Collins thinks Kage is on his way to a contract with a national organization, either TNA or WWE. The only thing that may hold him back is his size. He's very talented in the ring and earns the respect of his peers, but doesn't have the hulking frame most of the big-time pros do.
That is every wrestler's goal ultimately, the big contract. That is why they risk their body for little to no pay, chasing a dream. But Kage, a young man from the small town of Maxton, N.C., puts it in another way, "Whether we get a contract or just keep climbing up in these rings in the smaller circuits...It's a passion...A passion to live the dream because we're doing what makes us happy."
And they all seem genuinely happy to be a part of something they love.
Kage refers to all wrestlers he's worked with as a, "fraternity...The more I like a guy, the harder I hit him."
But the lack of women in the C4W is apparent. In recent years, in the WWE, there's been a substantial influx of female talent dubbed "Divas" in and out of the ring. When asked about the attempts to mirror the trends of the major outlets, Kage responds, "Sometimes women are involved, we'll have midgets, everyone deserves an opportunity...we even have someone from the Special Olympics."
He's referring to Will E Styles or William Johnston from Conway, who has a hearing impairment and wears a Special Olympics Gold Medal...it's hard to tell if it's a gimmick or not. This equal opportunity mentality doesn't come without dues. They pay their dues in blood, sweat and muscle tears...in strains, sprains and broken bones.
"You hear that?" A loud click comes from the ankle of Kage. He says, "We all have pain everyday, it's different for us...it's normal."
Kage says he's broken every finger on both hands. "We've all left pieces of ourselves in there."
The first champion of the C4W, The Gravedigger - a heel, waits his turn to talk, but when Kage goes to apply his face-paint, The Gravedigger, known as Eliot Lerch, everywhere else but here, lets us know he broke his leg once and it put him out of the ring for two months.
Two months, that's all?
"Well, it was a really bad break." Eliot Lerch looks like he works for WWE already, a muscular 22 year-old, who speaks softly but carries a big shovel.
The heel with the biggest mouth is "The Golden Child" Christopher McKenzie. In reality "The Golden Child" is Shane Roberts, born and raised in Myrtle Beach. He worked the money match with Reid Flair on a recent Saturday night. He takes time out of his preparation to relate a story where he drove six hours in a backseat with three other bulky wrestlers to slide into a ring, receive a superkick to the face that sent him crashing through the ropes, landing with two teeth knocked out, three broken fingers, two cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder. "Five minutes and it was over."
Getting injured during a match is referred to as "stretched." And these guys can get stretched any number of ways. Their bodies are thrown and flung, bashed and banged, but oddly enough, injuries often occur on routine moves they've done a million times. There is even a condition called Trachoma, an eye disease that's caused by a combination of ring dust and sweat, commonly resulting in blindness.
Here in the C4W, they wrestle in a small ring by wrestling standards (only 16-feet-by-16-feet, the big federations such as WWE typically use a 20-by-20 squared ring) made out of wood struts, instead of the more giving metal - topped with plywood, carpet cushion and the canvas. Collins says, "This canvas is unforgiving. If these guys train here, anywhere else they wrestle is like landing on a mattress."
Back in 1996, an incident at Madison Square Garden changed wrestling forever. A group of popular stars of the then-WWF (now WWE) broke the illusion of heroes versus villains and gave each other a group-hug after a hard fought cage match. The results of this controversial embrace forever cracked the fantasy of wrestling not being a staged event. This illusion and the keeping of this secret are known as "kayfabe" in the wrestling community - a loose interpretation of the Pig Latin for fake. Before the curtain fell, audiences who bought into the illusion were referred to as "marks" - a demeaning moniker in the fact that con men also refer to their victims as marks.
But now, the times are-a-changing and crowds at wrestling events are known as "smarks" or smart marks - these crowds know the truth but choose to let the illusion take over whenever the forearms are swinging and the announcer is introducing the next feud. It's not a big reach, do any of us really believe Christian Bale is Batman or Heath Ledger died as the Joker?
Wrestling fans are an exceptional bunch - they are just as much a part of the show as the characters. Without the crowd's boos - referred to by wrestlers as "heat" and their cheers known as "pop," sports-entertainment would really be a flat three hours of watching guys flop around in silence.
That is especially true with the C4W, where there is no color commentating during the matches. The fans pop and heat are the color.
Still in its infancy, the C4W's first show was in March. The local fan base is growing, pulling in about 150 people each show - some newcomers, plenty of returnees, mostly local and always vocal.
The crowd is an equal split of children, women and men. By far, the women and children are the loudest portions. They boo and shout insults at the heel - giving the heat. By the time the babyface hits the mat, it doesn't matter - they'd cheer for anyone to beat the heel's ass. It doesn't stop the wrestlers from playing the crowd, looking for cheap pop and deserving the cheap heat.
In a 210,000-square-foot warehouse, without air conditioning, giving heat takes on a whole new meaning. But it doesn't exhaust the rowdy bunch who reciprocates appreciation to the wrestlers for sweating their souls out for them.
The returnees do have their favorites. Their enthusiasm is obvious during the intermission as they rally around their new grassroots heroes. Luke Lewis, known as 2D Extreme in the C4W, is an acrobatic ninja loved by the kids - DuBose says "during one show he was injured and the children were literally crying." Kage brings the whole audience into chant after chant. Tom Trust is the favorite heel for his give and take with the crowd. Japanese Death, SHI, is touted by many kids for the best gimmick - his name means "death" in Japanese and with his scraggly hair and smeared face-paint, he looks a lot like the legendary, WWF heel, The Great Kabuki. Dave Maelstrom, "The Sinister Gentleman," (Willie Clapp) weighs in at 6-foot-6, 325 pounds and has a head the size of an inflated ape at a used car dealership. He has been known to scare the kids to the point of peeing their pants.
During the intermission, we ask a few audience members why they chose the C4W on a Saturday night when the Grand Strand has so many other entertainment and leisure options. Grand Strand local Scott Dennis says, "It's something different to do." He attended the matches with his daughter, McKenzie, who had a great time.
Another local resident Ed Hopper says, "Kids love it and the price is right." Admission is $8 at the door. He brought his son, Craven, who was dishing his share of pop and heat during the first half of the show.
Chris Turner from Garden City Beach says, "I'm here on a boy's night out...I've been a wrestling fan for years. I was wearing a Ric Flair T-shirt in Wal-Mart the other day and a guy that worked there came up and asked me if I wanted to come see Ric Flair's son wrestle...I was like sure."
A few minutes after the event cranks up pro wrestling legacy, Reid Flair, the youngest son of "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, walks into the venue. We wait for him to settle in and then approach him, asking for a few minutes of his time. That interaction goes like this...
"So Reid, you're the son of Nature Boy, Ric Flair..."
He interrupts, "Who are you with?"
He interrupts again, "What do you want..." He interrupts himself by spitting a mouthful of dip in a cup.
"Just a few questions, if you've got a moment?"
He looks despondent. Then uninterested. Then he says, "OK"
So we give it another go, "Being a Flair, when did you start wrestling?"
He spits in the cup and says, "Always."
We wait for something else but nothing comes, so we ask, "Do you incorporate any of your father's moves in your style?"
Now, he's not the only one despondent and uninterested. "Which ones?," we ask.
He says, "Who you with again?"
"What is your endgame? Where do you see yourself in five years?"
He starts to walk away, turns, spits in a cup and says, "WWE."
Then he goes back to sitting in a chair by the dressing room, until the intermission, when he sets up a table and sells autographs for five bucks apiece. Later on before his match, he can be found standing in a corner by the bleachers, counting his autograph money.
Why does this guy get the push? His last name? He wears an "R.F."-inscribed boot like we need a reminder? We start to see why these people get so invested in this. Could Flair to go down by the hands of a Myrtle Beach native who doesn't have coattails to ride on? Could "The Golden Child" Christopher McKenzie stand above the fallen prince and give Flair a big fat, "Woooooo!" right in his face?
But it's never going to go down that way. Not when there's business at stake.
As the show comes to a close, Flair climbs into the ring as the headliner - the "Money Match." That goes about as well as the interview. Compared to the other matches, this is a huge letdown of a finale. A lot of posing, a lot of undeserved crowd pop and misdirected heat toward "The Golden Child." A few takedowns later, Flair breaks out his father's signature move, the Figure-Four, to end the squash match. A storyline concerning CEO Rob is rushed through before Flair knocks him down, climbs out of the ring, collects his check and makes his exit to the parking lot while still wearing his spandex trunks.
Without as much as one single, solitary "Woooooo!"
It's the following day at the X, and C4W is hosting a seminar by Ricky Morton, one half of the Rock 'n' Roll Express, a champion tag team combo that saw its greatest success in the '80s. They were small in stature by wrestling standards and both members of the Express wore magnificent mullets back in the day - Morton's was blonde, and the other guy's was black.
Weaving through the kid's birthday party, the basketball courts, the inside soccer fields, back to the C4W's ring in the back of the complex, that same blonde mullet is coming into view. Only it's a lot whiter blonde.
Morton, the current AIWF World Heavyweight Champion is a wrestler that has returned to the independent leagues after a career in the upper echelons of pro wrestling, including the WCW and WWF. The smaller circuits are filled with four types of wrestlers - the first are guys who are never going to make it. The second are guys who pay their dues, work hard, and get a tryout for one of the bigger outlets. The third are the anomalies with the size and gimmick or the sons of the legends. The last are the guys who've had success in the big leagues but are now on the backside of their careers.
It usually takes a wrestler eight to ten years, at the minimum, to earn an interview and workout with one of the big organizations, such as WWE.
With C4W's owner Collins seated ringside, Morton does Hindu squats in the corner of the ring with four of Collins' students.
Collins says, "Most wrestling schools want to make you sign a three-year contract, make you pay up front, then push you so hard...they make you quit."
Morton has stopped throwing the students around. He's sitting with them Indian-style in the middle of the ring.
"In our school," Collins says, "we give the first class for free, for the curious. Some are one bump and gone."
A bump is the proper way to land from a fall without getting hurt. Collins has approximately 10 students in his school, taking their bumps. The school costs $75 a month and classes run from 5-8 p.m. Monday through Friday. The students range in age from 12 to 38. The 12-year-old fought an exhibition match on July 9 under the masked-moniker, "The Suicidal Kid." He flipped around the ring like a pro...a pro with a horrible ring-name.
Morton also had a match on July 9 in Loris, for the Southeastern Wrestling Alliance. The SWA is the other game, almost in town. The SWA also runs a school but Collins doesn't seem worried.
He says, "We want to continue to build the local talent, develop our following, a Web site, rent more space and make this a real attraction."
Even though it's a bunch of guys seemingly kicking each other's ass - Collins aims for family-friendly entertainment. During the shows, the language is clean and the worst aspect is the portrayal of violence, but isn't ass-kicking the very essence of every superhero movie?
Morton grabs the ropes and says, "You guys got good ropes, if you train on bad ropes, you're black-and-blue from head to toe."
Collins is basically working off of word of mouth - flyers, Facebook, posting the matches on YouTube.
Morton begins to ramble a bit about becoming a wrestler, "You got to enjoy it...enjoy it until you love it...love it until it kills you to be away from it...understand me...I've got a Ph.D. in here..."
Collins puts his head on Morton's shoulder and Morton gives him a little hug...a fraternity.
"I'd rather you be here," Morton says to a 14 year-old boy across from him, "than to be at someone's house were I don't know what you're doing...no one is going to hurt you in this ring."
There are certainly worse ways a teenager could spend their evenings. Learning a skill in a school that passes down a time-honored tradition while getting in shape has to be better than killing simulated soldiers in a video game.
As long as they know that you don't get on "Monday Night Raw" without paying your dues and crossing a normal person's threshold of pain.
"Everybody thinks they know something, but they don't know nothing," says Morton.