Fellowship of the ring
Professional wrestling brings the family together
On Sept. 12, 2009, Marvin Osuna, a 37-year-old youth minister at Bethesda Church took his wife and four kids, ages 8, 6, 4 and nine months, to the Neil Road Recreational Center for a professional wrestling event, the first hosted by Pro Wrestling Destination, a new Reno business.
Before the final match, a 20-man “Reno Rumble,” Osuna’s kids were worried.
“Where’s Dad? He’s going to miss it!” They frantically looked around but didn’t see Osuna anywhere. One by one, the wrestlers entered the ring. The action was over-the-top: body slams, clotheslines and dropkicks. The crowd heckled, jeered and cheered.
The last wrestler to enter was called The Prophet Izekiel. His face was obscured by a black hoodie. He pulled off the hood and looked in the direction of Osuna’s kids, who were surprised to see their father standing there, wearing wrestler garb, on his way to the ring for a royal rumble. Their mouths dropped open in awe and stayed that way.
Earlier in the year, Osuna had suffered a minor neck injury and was still not up to his wrestling prime, so he didn’t stay in the ring long this time, but he did well enough to impress his kids.
“Out of the ring, they gave me high fives and were screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘You’re our hero!’” he says with a big grin.A wrestled development
Pro Wrestling Destination alternately bills itself as “The Home of Old School Wrestling” and “Where Dreams Become Reality.” For Dustin Serrano, a.k.a. The Dreamachine Dustin Ardine, the two mottos are basically synonymous.
“It’s always been my dream to become something in this business,” he says. He’s the founder, head trainer, booking agent, promoter and all-around point man for PWD. He’s also an active pro wrestler, one of the “PWD Superstars.” He’s just 25 years old, but he’s been wrestling on the independent circuit for 10 years.
PWD is a family business. Dustin’s mother, Tina, is the CEO. His brother, Darrell “Bulldog” Baldwin, is the head of security and the head referee. His sister, Challon, is the ring announcer, featured vocalist and MC—“the voice of PWD.”
“I’m the owner and CEO and mom of PWD,” says Tina. “Every one of them calls me Mom.”
(World Wrestling Entertainment, the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, is also a family-owned-and-operated business, by the infamous McMahon family. The family members, especially patriarch Vince, often act as villains in the “kayfabe,” or fictional narratives, of WWE. But in that case, it’s family owned and operated only in the same way that other mega-corporations, like Walmart, are family owned and operated.)
Tina, a nurse by day, likes to tell a story about when Dustin was a boy. Bulldog, the elder brother, was supposed to be babysitting. But like older babysitting brothers sometimes do, he was mostly just ignoring his younger brother. Tina came home from the grocery store just in time to watch in horror as Dustin dove from the roof of their house onto a mattress, like a wrestler diving from the top rope to the mat.
“I kept thinking he’d outgrow it, but he never did,” she says.
Like any good business, PWD was started because of a need unfulfilled: There was no professional wrestling company in Northern Nevada.
“I grew up in this town, and there was no wrestling,” says Dustin. “I went away for 10 years, and when I came back, still no wrestling.”
The company basically operates on two levels. It maintains a training compound on Sutro Street that functions much like a karate dojo or any other martial arts training center. Students enroll for training and advance through a series of degrees. But unlike other martial arts training programs, there’s an emphasis on showmanship and developing fictional characters and in-the-ring personae.
The other half of PWD is the public events. The company organizes and promotes big events at the Neil Road Recreational Center about every other month, and hosts smaller events at the training compound between the big events. The smaller events are showcases for the local, developing talent. The Neil Road events feature the local PWD crew, as well as wrestlers from the indie circuit and big names from the halcyon days of old-school pro wrestling—guys like Brutus the Barber Beefcake and the Honky Tonk Man.
So it’s half workout and half performance.
It’s important to Tina that the events be family-oriented. “Wrestling started at the fairgrounds,” she says. “It’s supposed to be family friendly entertainment. … If my grandson can’t watch it, it’s not going to happen in my ring.”
Her grandson, Tucker, 7, is a member of the PWD security staff.
Even though Tina will nix barbwire or fire or staple guns, wrestling is still violent, but it’s exaggerated PG violence—PG-13 at worst—and considerably less violent than, say, boxing, or Ultimate Fighting Championship-style mixed martial arts, or even professional football.
It’s supposed to be good clean family fun—for the promoters as well as the spectators.
“He’s going to do this anyway,” says Tina, gesturing toward Dustin. “This way, it’s something we can do together as a family.”Perfect match
The most recent PWD event was held on March 20 at the Neil Road Recreational Center. The crowd represented a diverse swath of Reno: chubby 20-something dudes in heavy metal shirts, multigenerational Hispanic families, nervous-looking middle school kids on first dates, old timers there to see sentimental favorites, collegiate hipsters there to relive childhood fantasies, and packs of high school boys excited to heckle, chant and catcall. They’d either chant the names of wrestlers they liked, or append “sucks!” after a chanted name from across the room. They’d shout things at the wrestlers and referees, often evoking a response. The crowd interaction really defines wrestling. The audience can talk directly to the heroes and villains.
But the distinctive, reverb-heavy bounce of the mat was the loudest sound in the room. It establishes a rhythm that punctuates the ring action like cymbal crashes in a rock song.
There were a number of bouts—some notable for the athleticism, some notable for the narrative power. A high-flying “triple threat” battle featuring Money Mike Rayne, The Wise Guy and Sheik Khan Abadi showcased some dazzling choreography among the three athletes. WWE legend Brutus the Barber Beefcake battled PWD World Heavyweight Champ Frank Lee Gorgeous. After knocking him out with a sleeper hold, Beefcake amputated Gorgeous’ ponytail. Young, spunky Davina Rose successfully defended her PWD Women’s Championship against Jenna Lynn, a villainess with Bettie Page hairstyle and a penchant for hairpulling.
Wrestling has a lot of insider lingo, much of it obscure and bizarre. The good guys are called “faces,” and the bad guys are called “heels.” This makes it easy for an audience to know who to root for (though it’s often fun to root for the heels). In some matches, these roles aren’t clearly defined. Other times, it’s all too obvious.
Perry Von Vicious, announced as the PWD Silver State Champion, entered the ring dressed as some sort of snooty, monocle-wearing aristocrat. The crowd immediately knew to start booing. Somebody called him “Mr. Peanut.”
“All right, you filthy peasants,” he said, before explaining that he had purchased the Silver State title from The Hired Gun, the previous champion. “That’s right! Unlike all of you, I never had to do any work at all.”
His challenger for the title was Mother Truckin’ Otis, a big guy in overalls and a mesh cap. The crowd loved him. An advantage that wrestling has over most comic books or action movies is that you don’t always know which way it’s going to go. The bad guys sometimes win. But in this case, Otis emerged victorious, and the crowd cheered as the big working class hero beat down the pretentious rich fop.Bodies, wrestle and motion
The first thing that new PWD students learn is how to fall down. To be more precise, they learn how to “bump,” fall down without hurting themselves.
“The first thing you’ve got to learn is how to be beat up, basically,” says Bulldog. That’s the green level. Students advance through yellow and red levels, learning moves and getting in shape along the way, before becoming eligible to compete in the public events as wrestlers.
Dustin says that, unlike some other wrestling training programs, PWD doesn’t turn people away if they’re not the right body type or insist that they build up some muscles and get a fake tan before coming back.
“The only people we’d turn away are the big egos and bad attitudes,” says Bulldog. “I don’t want a wrestler who’s going to have a ’roid rage in the ring.”
“Leave the attitudes at home,” says Dustin. “It’s real-life out there, and wrestling in here.”
Dustin says that PWD strikes the right balance of being a no-pressure workout environment, but still offering professional connections for aspiring athletes who want to pursue in career in wrestling.
“It’s a different way to work out,” says Bulldog. “We do stretches, calisthenics. The key to wrestling is to have a strong core, so we ab it out. We really ab it out.”
But just as important as the physical development needed for wrestling is the psychological development. Just like professional dancers do, wrestlers learn to tell a story with their bodies.
“You’ve got to set up moves like you’re telling a story,” says Dustin. “Wrestlers are the modern storytellers.”
“It’s not the guy jumping off the ropes who sells it,” says Bulldog. “It’s the dude who gets kicked. He’s the salesman.”
“Not only do you have to be a phenomenal athlete, but a movie star as well,” says Dustin. You’ve got to ham it up, and get the crowd to love or hate you.
This performance aspect of wrestling is a turnoff for many sports fans, who often deride wrestling as fake. Some of the performances are indeed scripted, and the winners are usually decided in advance, but the athleticism and charisma are real.
“The only part that’s really scripted is the last 10 seconds,” says Dustin.
It’s like a jazz performance, where the musicians will play through a tune, and then improvise over the chords, before ending by restating the tune. The beginning and the end are agreed upon, but what happens in between is a collaborative improvisation within a certain framework.
“With wrestling, you know that you’re going to get guaranteed entertainment,” says Dustin. He points out that if, for example, you make a pay-per-view purchase of a boxing or MMA event, you might get a good fight, but it might be a dud. With pro wrestling, he says, you’re virtually guaranteed to get your money’s worth.
“There’s a variety of what you’re going to see with wrestling over any other sports entertainment,” he says.Secret identities
Osuna, the wrestling youth minister, was a huge wrestling fan as a child. In the mid 1980s, when he and his family first moved to the United States from Guatemala, Osuna discovered the then burgeoning World Wrestling Federation, and fell in love with it. (The WWF name was changed to WWE in 2002 after the World Wide Fund for Nature, which uses the WWF acronym, took legal action against the wrestling company.)
“I always had something in me that wanted to do that,” says Osuna of wrestling.
Not long after PWD moved into their compound last summer, Osuna saw the sign outside.
“It was like a vision or a mirage,” he says. “I was like, ‘Is this for real? Sign me up!’”
He started wrestling, but kept it secret. He told his wife, but not his kids or too many of his friends or relatives. If he was on his way to the PWD compound, and somebody asked him where he was going he would just say, “I’m going to go work out.” Which was true; Osuna says he’s in much better shape now then he was when he started wrestling.
He revealed his wrestling persona to his family at the first PWD event.
“He’s the nicest guy,” says Dustin, “but his character’s a villain.”
Osuna based his character on the Biblical Ezekiel, an Old Testament prophet who was tough on sin. (The name Izekiel is also a trubute to his sons, Isaias and Ezequiel.) In the eyes of his character, wrestling fans worship the good guy wrestlers, therefore, as a tough sin-busting prophet, it’s his job to cast down the wrestlers as false idols.
It’s very different from what he normally does at his day job.
“It’s my job to lift people up,” he says. “Not kick ’em in the gut when they’re down. Still, either way, I think the message comes across.”
Many of the PWD students are also related. Osuna’s niece, Monica Real, wrestles as Vikki Vanity.
“She’s really vain and superficial,” says Real, when describing her character. “I’m a mellow, down-to-earth person. It’s fun to pretend to be somebody completely different.”
She says that she normally quite shy, and immersing herself in such a flamboyant character has helped her with her confidence outside of the ring.
Saul Gonzalez, Osuna’s nephew, is another PWD wrestler, Rockstar Johnny Vega, who wrestles wearing King Diamond-style heavy metal facepaint. The rock star personality is an exaggerated aspect of Gonzalez’s personality; he’s the vocalist for local hardcore band Die Tonight. He mentions Ultimate Warrior and Rey Mysterio as two of his influences and inspirations as a wrestler.
A dental assistant by day, and usually a musician by night, he discovered the local wrestling scene through his uncle last fall.
“I hadn’t seen him in a couple months,” says Gonzalez. “He’d lost a lot weight and looked a lot fitter.”
Gonzalez asked Osuna what he’d been doing with himself to get in such good shape, and Osuna gave his usual “going to the gym” response. But Gonzalez knew his uncle well enough to tell that he wasn’t getting the whole story. So he kept pressing Osuna.
“Finally he took me in the other room,” says Gonzalez, “away from the rest of the family, and he said, ‘I’m training to be a pro wrestler.’”
It was like Clark Kent revealing himself to be Superman.
“I was blown away,” says Saul. “It was like, “What? Are you serious? No way. Are you serious? Can I try it?’”