By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
Without loosening his hold on War Cloud, whose face is turning purple, Derek scowls at Rhodes. Derek releases War Cloud, springs off the ropes and spears the Indian to the mat. War Cloud lies there a minute or two, massaging his rib cage.
Rhodes looks over at Wade Chism, his tag-team partner. Both shake their heads in disgust.
With little rest, Derek finds himself back in the practice ring, this time against the champ, Takao Omori. His features framed by a wide Mohawk and a neatly trimmed goatee, Omori is on an American sabbatical from the lucrative NOAH wrestling league in Japan. He came to the Ozarks to learn from the renowned Race and, he hopes, to get a shot at the big show: Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (which changed its name from "World Wrestling Federation" after a dispute with the World Wildlife Fund ). "I deal with them on a daily basis," says Race, who, after spending most of his life in pro wrestling, has connections top to bottom.
Though he maintains a professional relationship with McMahon and his cronies, Race doesn't hide his disdain for the WWE. "I don't like the shit they do," he says. Race has little patience for the laser lights and pornographic plotlines of McMahon's big-money smackdowns. Race is old-school all the way; in his league, the motto is "Shut up and wrestle!" And in a few short years, Race's WLW has blossomed into a full-fledged breeding ground for international talent. Race has forged a working relationship with NOAH, and several of his wrestlers -- Rhodes and Murphy among them -- have toured Japan, making tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks.
Despite opportunities overseas, though, Race knows that household-name success for his wrestlers ultimately comes down to a shot at the WWE. That's where the really big money and glory are today, and Race would never hold a young wrestler back from his dreams. So far, none of his guys has scored a WWE contract, but some have been called up to compete in WWE matches in Kansas City, St. Louis and, sometimes, Columbia. Essentially serving as extras, they usually make about $350. The chance to catch Vince McMahon's eye is the true reward.
When Race was their age, scores of top-notch leagues were vying for his talents. Now it's just the WWE, the overseas circuit and dozens of little leagues like the WLW that do battle in front of entertainment-starved crowds in towns such as Eldon.
Thanks to Race's networking, Derek now must grapple with the indomitable Omori. Sweaty, slightly out of breath, Derek faces the champion. Within minutes, Omori lifts Derek, turns him upside down, grips his head between his thighs.
Omori drops to the canvas, Derek's head still pinched between his legs -- the "guillotine driver." Derek goes limp on the mat and lies there moaning, breathing heavily.
Rhodes stares down at Derek and smirks. "He's the champion of the world for a reason," Rhodes says of Omori.
By midafternoon on the day of the Eldon match, Derek has fully recovered from being spiked headfirst onto a slab of thinly padded plywood. He and Gold Exchange teammate Murphy grab a late lunch at Buzzer McGee's, a sports bar across Maple Street from WLW headquarters. In Eldon, Buzzer's is the only cool hangout for aspiring pro wrestlers. "Unless," Murphy says, "you like chewing tobacco and hitting on chicks with mullets."
Murphy offers no apology for turning on Rhodes and joining the reviled Gold Exchange. "That guy's a dick," he says. "I hate his guts."
It didn't start out that way. As the first two graduates of the Harley Race Academy, Murphy and Rhodes were best friends. They roomed together, ate together, went on double dates. But envy got between them. "I just rose to the top," Murphy says. "I don't think he can handle being number two."
The relationship really began to sour, Murphy says, when they spent a week in Kahoka before a big match. "I was dumb enough to let him come to my hometown," Murphy scoffs. "He went to my hometown with a big chip on his shoulder, trying to be a badass to my friends, talking about how he was better than me. He was invisible. He was just a guy standing next to Matt Murphy. By putting me down, he was hoping that he could be better than me."
Murphy let it slide for a while. But by the time they rolled into Kahoka again, Murphy was on the disabled list. Once more, Rhodes talked trash about Murphy to his hometown friends. It was more than Murphy could bear. Although he wasn't scheduled to return to action for another week, he stormed into the ring, turned Rhodes upside down and smashed him to the mat in a pile driver. Rhodes was laid up for months. "There's a fine line between doing something that is safe and then going that extra couple of inches," Murphy says. "I didn't break his neck. I just did it enough to let him know that I could."
Now Murphy is with the Gold Exchange and is the proud owner of a WLW World Tag Team Champion belt.