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Class learns the ropes in wrestling

To get to the front door, you had to pass the Rolls-Royce. A nice touch.

You want to be a wrestler, a hero or villain to the masses? Here, where the seats are glove-soft leather, where the dashboard is burnished oak, here is where the dream can lead.

But it starts just beyond _ in a dimly lit ring in a seedy pink concrete-block building incongruously named the Sportatorium. That is where you learn how to grapple and grimace. Larry Sharpe's instructors will teach you how. For $3,000 and three to six months of your time, you can be a graduate of his Monster Factory.

Maybe you will make enough money to buy a Rolls like Larry's. Maybe you will be another Hulk, another Macho Man. Maybe you will stand in the center of the ring, idolized or vilified by millions.

Maybe you will earn just enough money for decent dental work. Maybe enough to replace the faded, shabby shorts, the torn T-shirt, the worn sneakers. Maybe enough for next month's rent. Maybe not.

Phil Russell was trying to fall down. He just couldn't get the hang of it.

The instructor would show him. Arms wrapped in front of his chest, he would fling himself to the mat, landing shoulders first with a reverberating blam!

Then Russell would try. Splat! Three hundred pounds would sort of roll to the canvas, the mottled-gray sweat pants slipping embarrassingly low in the rear. He would hoist himself to his feet, hoist his pants to his waist, and try again. Splat!

Sharpe is 41, a thick-waisted, thick-necked, pasty-skinned ex-wrestler, 10 years as an amateur, 17 as a pro. "I trained for 27 years doing pull-ups, sit-ups. Now I want to pass along what I know from a chair on the side, and to get fat drinking beer." He is well on his way. He calls himself Pretty Boy, and he is neither.

Last Saturday he flew down from his New Jersey home to audition prospective students for the Tampa branch of his pro wrestling school. A couple dozen applicants went through the basics. Some showed an aptitude for the contrived violence. Some, try as they might, couldn't mask the nervousness, the fear of actually getting hurt.

When Phil Russell lies alone in bed at night, he sees Damien Saint, standing in mid-ring, sweat glistening on red-and-black tights, taunting enraged fans with a championship belt brandished high above a contemptuous sneer.

As he drifts off to sleep, he isn't Phil Russell, 18 years old and already two years gone from Dixie Hollins High, not far from minimum wage selling cheap toys at The Pier. He is an alumnus of the Monster Factory. He is the wrestler with the name he has created for his alter ego. He is Damien Saint.

Dreamers come in all shapes and sizes. The dream doesn't change all that much. There is always an outfit. And a flowing mane. Or a beard. Maybe a helmet, a mask or a burnoose _ some kind of gimmick. And the belt. Gold. Encrusted with jewels.

Maybe a cape and sunglasses, or a cane and a derby or a tuxedo. Some dream of a career as a wrestler's manager or valet, a subordinate villain wreaking havoc outside the ring.

Or maybe a gown and high heels. Some want to be a heroine or villainess, a wrestler's significant other.

Marci May used to dream of being a wrestler (she still dreams of meeting Hulk Hogan). Now she's 19, a district manager for a Clearwater company, a junior-college student. But at this moment, she wants to be an alluring manager, the next Miss Elizabeth.

For $2,000, she can watch tapes of Miss Elizabeth and her contemporaries and create her own character; she can watch men learn to wrestle, learn a bit of it herself. Ladies-in-waiting have to learn how to take care of themselves, to fend off the guys pawing them on the way back to the locker room.

"I want to be a good-girl manager," Marci May says. "Or I could be a real nice one that gets double-crossed and beat up. Or I could switch from good to bad. Depends on who they stick you with."

She is watching the next group of students in the ring _ a few more fat guys, a skinny one and two wiry kids. "I've wanted to do this as long as I can remember," Marci May says. "I'd love the acting, chasing some 300-pound guy around like I'm going to kill him. Or getting thrown around and hit with a chair. I could handle that." She laughs.

The skinny guy, his arms cross-hatched with crude tattoos of past and present loves, is gasping for air. "I've got to quit smoking," Kevin Shaw says. Five minutes later, smoke curls from his next cigarette.

Shaw is 37, an unemployed cab driver who hasn't worked in the year since he came to Tampa from Fort Wayne. Patty is back in Indiana. They have been married for two years and separated for one. She is his seventh wife.

His two teen-age sons are in Indiana, too. "They probably think daddy's nuts," Shaw says. "I think he is. You've got to have a screw loose to get in there and beat yourself to death."

But to Kevin Shaw, wrestling is more than a whim, or even a dream. "It's a way of recovery," he says, "a way to realize something I couldn't do as a practicing alcoholic."

Back and forth they go, first walking, then running, learning how to grasp the top rope, to control the ricochet, to somersault, to fall. In front of thousands of screaming fans, with spotlights gleaming, and costumed, war-painted bodies, it can look spectacular. Here, in a musty gym, it is grunt work.

If they are really lucky, they will eventually earn a few thousand dollars for 10 or 15 minutes in the ring every few nights, enough to make worthwhile all the riding and sleeping on buses or in cars, all the fast-food meals, dismal arenas and break-even checks.

"I tell 'em, "Don't quit your job,'

" Sharpe says. "

"Do it part-time. Get a few small-time matches. If you find a gimmick, maybe you'll make it.'

"

Kevin Shaw, out of work and out of shape, puffs on another cigarette as he contemplates his future. "Royal purple tights," he says. "And the belt."

If he wants it badly enough, he will find a way to come up with the cash, and Larry Sharpe will gladly accept it. "I tell 'em what their chances are," he says. "But, hey, this is a business."

Kevin Shaw knows what his chances are. "Slim," he says. "It's a long way from here to Ric Flair. But the dream is worth it."

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