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Wrestlers invade Citrus _ to the delight of many

You're close enough to the action that when you yell at the performers, they yell back.

"Shaddup!" The Wizard snarled to a gray-haired woman in the front row who urged on her hero, Tommy "Quick Draw" Wright.

Quick Draw was tied up at the moment _ in a headlock, actually _ and couldn't answer for himself.

That would change momentarily, though. In pro wrestling events, especially charity benefits like Friday night's rumble at Citrus High, the good guys usually summon secret strength and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Sure, it's a cliche. But so is the entire event, from the choreographed punches to the flag waving to the booing of the bad guys (they're the ones in the masks or accompanied by a sleazy manager or a scantily clad girlfriend).

The audience knows this _ and loves it.

About 500 adults and children rocked the Citrus Bowl with cheers for their favorites and catcalls to the enemy, all to raise money for the Key Training Center.

The flamboyant performers waived their paydays to help the Key in an evening of fun and pain organized by the Rev. Chris Whaley, pastor of First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills and a former pro wrestler.

Whaley was no mere spectator, however. In the evening's finale, he would face the Cuban Assassin.

But that was hours away. At the moment, he, like everyone, was wondering how Quick Draw would get out of his predicament.

They needn't have worried. Quick Draw, who hails from Brooksville, slipped behind the Wizard and started twisting his arm.

"Oh, God, no!" Wizard bellowed.

"Break it off and beat him with it!" a man in the fourth row shouted back, with true wrestling sympathy.

A few body slams and one Texas toe-hold later, the Wizard was out of tricks. Quick Draw had saved the day for truth, justice and the American way.

Two by two, the gladiators stomped out of the Citrus High locker room for their matches. Chuckling Citrus County sheriff's officers provided escorts, shooing away the kids seeking autographs. (That would come later. Right now, the grapplers wore their game faces.)

Blaze, a hefty wrestler who lists her weight as "none of your business," strutted to her theme music, which blared scratchily from the football field's public address system.

Maria Osaka brought exuberance, a repertoire of roundhouse kicks and a Citrus High pedigree (Class of '89.)

Beefy Buddy Valentine wore a sequined robe big enough to cover a house for termite fumigation. He brought a toady manager whose schtick was to grab the microphone and heckle the crowd, the referee and the opponent.

Charlie Laye Jr. (definitely one of the good guys) tossed small bags of Lays (get it?) potato chips to the kids in the crowd. He cemented the fans' allegiance by smashing a big bag of chips over the head of Valentine's manager, triggering an out-of-ring experience for the wrestlers.

Dirty Dick Slater carried an assortment of illegal weapons in his trunks. For some reason, the referee grew deaf as the crowd shouted to him about Slater's secret cache.

No matter. His opponent, The Warlord, boasting muscles fit for a comic book super hero, flung Slater around like a rag doll. When the match was over, Slater grabbed the microphone to demand five more minutes. Warlord agreed. Slater skulked away, to lusty boos from the crowd.

Local favorite Dory Funk Jr., looking every bit the senior grappler on the fight card, had his hands full with the Mad Russian, Vladimir Koloff. Wilting under the intense humidity, Funk still managed to save the day for America by kicking the Russian back to the Evil Empire.

All that remained for a clean sweep by the good guys was for Whaley to win his match.

Whaley was nervous. He had every right to be.

He hadn't wrestled in five years. He is a 42-year-old Baptist minister who was about to sacrifice his body on the altar of pain for a noble cause.

"Don't worry," I told him. "I'll protect you."