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BAM! WHAM! SLAM // So you think wrestling isn't a sport?

Perhaps it was one question too many posed to Jim "the Anvil" Neidhart about the legitimacy of his sport, professional wrestling. Or maybe Neidhart had a reservoir of adrenaline after almost a week without training.

Either way, Neidhart, a former World Wrestling Federation champion, seemed to put a little extra oomph in his drop-kicks to my shoulders as I lay on my back.

"Aaacchh," I groaned from the canvas of the ring in his back yard, gritting my teeth and tensing up for the stomp to follow.

Climbing through the ropes to join Neidhart and Manny Resto, the "Puerto Rican Punisher," in the ring offered quite an insight into professional wrestling.

We opened the session with demanding sets of neck rotations, leg squats, sit-ups and push-ups. Then we moved on to tumbling, running into and bouncing off the ropes and a bull session, a routine that pits two wrestlers locked arm-in-arm and trying with all their might to "bull" the other guy backward.

"Give me some resistance," Neidhart commanded, steering me around the ring like a rag doll.

"I am, I am," I grunted.

Next, Neidhart showed me how to drop onto my back, arms akimbo to slap the canvas for dramatic effect. At that point, I'd just about had enough. The workout had left me drenched with sweat and gasping for air.

I was surprised my body hurt so much. After all, this is wrestling. It's not supposed to hurt _ is it?

It doesn't look this hard on television. Two hulking behemoths locked in choreographed combat _ an arm twist here, an overly reacted grimace there. An arena where the rock 'em, sock 'em action is more show than two athletes trading blows toe-to-toe.

Not.

Top physical condition

The training before the wrestlers get in the ring is grueling. Neidhart and about a dozen local wrestlers work out three times a week in Neidhart's 20-by-20-foot backyard ring. Billy the Kid is there, along with the Scavenger, MVP (which stands for Most Violent Player) and the Wench.

This is a time for them to hone their skills, to engage in headlocks, pins and body slams _ not to practice those antics they display in front of the cameras. Those can be rehearsed before a bathroom mirror.

Neidhart bristles at the suggestion that the sport is all fake. "Nobody tells me what to do," he said. "I don't prearrange anything."

Emile Limoges, a k a the Mad Frenchman, put it this way: "There's a certain amount of show, but it's not all fake. I mean, how do you fake a body slam? It still hurts. We could go out and break each other's arms every night, but if you did that, there'd be no wrestlers."

In six weeks of training, Limoges lost 63 pounds, down from 420 to 357.

"Come on out and try it. You'll see how fake it is," said Brenda Rodriguez, who wanted to get in shape and was convinced by Neidhart to try wrestling. She got hooked on the sport and brought along her husband, Ed. He now is the Scavenger. She is the Wench.

"The days of the big belly wrestler are gone," said 41-year-old Neidhart. "These are the '90s. Everyone's into fitness and nutrition. The only way you can get in ring shape for a match on TV is to work out in a ring."

Ordinary lives

Though they appear in costumes and have outlandish acts, the local wrestlers have outside lives that are downright conventional.

Limoges is a Pasco Sheriff's Office sergeant and lives in Zephyrhills.

Manny Resto, a resident of Lutz, teaches science at Buchanan Junior High School in Carrollwood. He would leave teaching to wrestle full time, but for now Resto wrestles about twice a month on the American Wrestling Federation circuit.

Billy Lindsey, alias Billy the Kid, has wrestled professionally for just five months. A Riverview resident, he pays the bills as a cook and nightclub singer.

Terry Szopinski, the Warlord, lives in Tampa and owns a nutrition business.

The Rodriguezes, both of whom have acted in dinner theater and plays, make wrestling a family affair. The couple from Zephyrhills bring their No. 1 fan, foster child Adam, 11, to their workouts.

"We feel special, because a lot of other kids don't get to watch their parents wrestle," Brenda Rodriguez said.

When you see the Scavenger or the Wench in the ring, you would never know that he is an auto mechanic or that she works in a doctor's office.

Wrestling also attracts athletes from other sports. Neidhart threw the shot put at the University of California at Los Angeles and had brief stints with the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders before turning to wrestling in 1984.

At first, he said, "I was scared. I was just wrestling for my life, basically."

Resto, 28, played football at the University of Central Florida and had an unsuccessful tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before taking up wrestling.

Dale Torborg, 24, was a first baseman for the Tampa Yankees last year, but he figures he has a better shot at the big time as a wrestler. Torborg, whose father, Jeff, was a major-league player and manager, appreciates the physical aspect of his new sport.

"There's more punishment on your body, whereas baseball's more hand-eye coordination," Torborg said. "Here, you've got to be big and strong enough to take the physical beating."

Terry Szopinski, a nine-year veteran of professional wrestling, played defensive tackle at the University of Iowa. The strapping 6-foot-5, 300-pounder was forced to retire from wrestling after severely injuring his neck in an auto accident earlier this year.

"If you don't have a body in this sport, you better have a gimmick," said Szopinski, 33.

The Puppet Masters

Professional wrestling can be a struggle to make $100 here, $200 there.

At the other extreme, Neidhart has made more than $200,000 in some years and Terry "Hulk" Hogan is a millionaire, having parlayed success in his sport into movie deals and a television show.

To make it to the big time, veterans and newcomers alike agree that you must be in top physical condition and be an entertainer.

"You have to have some type of athletic background," said Resto.

Keeping in shape is one thing, but Lindsey likes working the crowd, relying on his experience as an Elvis impersonator and singer in local bands.

What attracts viewers and live audiences is wrestling's unique combination of athleticism and showmanship, placing the performer somewhere between athlete and actor.

For Resto, who turned pro in February, the "rush" is the main attraction at this stage.

"You get a high off of the crowd," he said, "because they're responding to you as a sole person rather than a team. You can control the crowd with your actions. You can make them love you or hate you _ like a puppet master. You pull all the right strings and they'll respond."

Resto has played good and evil characters. It all depends on demographics. In rural areas, the Puerto Rican Punisher is the bad guy. In Miami and Ybor City, his character is revered.

"Everybody wants to see a different character in wrestling," Szopinski said. "They want to see the good and the bad, just like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne."

"It's kind of like they're cartoon characters coming to life," Resto said, explaining his children's fascination with wrestlers. "They get to see it in person rather than in the movies or in a comic book."

Szopinski says it is essential that there is a variety of characters.

"If everyone's the same, it's boring," he said. "Plus, the people who pay to watch it can get right on top of you and yell and scream."

And spit at you or try to stick pins or cut you, added Neidhart, who says he is not too fond of that aspect of his profession.

"People grope you, people jab at you with sharp objects, spit at you," Neidhart said. Fans also throw things. "Cokes, beer, stuff like that."

As the Wench, Brenda Rodriguez has a whip to stave off fans who get too close.

Still, she feeds off the crowd, saying, "It's fun. They're there to see a show."

Neidhart points out that animated reactions to an audience and hamming it up for television are all part of the game.

"If you don't love the camera, this is the wrong business to be in."

If you go

Storch & Sons Restaurant, 4422 U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes, will host a night of pro wrestling Saturday as part of a fund-raiser for the Fraternal Order of Police. The bouts begin at 5 p.m., and admission is $6.

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