By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Sam Levin
By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
Tonight, Derek has an opportunity to earn a piece of that prize. Murphy's regular tag-team partner -- Superstar Steve -- can't make the match. Ordinarily this would result in a forfeiture, but the crafty Johnny Gold claims to have signed a contract with the WLW allowing any Gold Exchange member to defend a teammate's title.
This is one reason Derek joined the Gold Exchange. In less than a year, Derek landed on Pro Wrestling Illustrated's top-500 list. WLW insiders have no doubt he'll be the league's rookie of the year. Derek says he gives Gold 15 percent of his earnings for the privilege of being on the championship fast track. For a local match such as the one tonight, that means 15 percent of $100. (The veteran Murphy's take is $150.) For an out-of-town match in, say, Fort Lupton, Colorado, Derek could pull in $350 plus travel expenses. And in Japan -- where crowds often number in the tens of thousands -- the take can be a few thousand dollars.
Yet what Derek won't talk about is the added incentive that his contract offers Gold. "I get paid a little more when they win," Gold says.
So Gold has obvious cause to stick his cane into the fray from time to time.
A cold autumn rain pelts the brick-and-corrugated-steel Eldon Civic Center. James Rickerson and the rest of the Crocker Bunch pour out of a gray minivan and seek shelter under the Civic Center's brick overhang, waiting for the doors to open. The big Friday-night WLW event is clearly the highlight of their week. "It gives me a chance to get out and enjoy recreation and see some of the people I've known for a long time, way back, wrestlers," James says.
Margaret Tarpy loves WLW because she's long adored Harley Race. "I 'member when I was a little girl," she says. "I used to sit down and watch, with my dad, Harley Race. I always told my dad, before he passed away, I said, 'Dad, one of these days,' I says, 'I'm going to meet Harley Race in person.' And sure enough, one of my dreams came true."
It was at a WLW match like this one -- she claims to have attended "forty, maybe a hundred" -- when she spotted Race in the distance and told whomever was with her, "That can't be who I think it is." Margaret recounts what happened next: "And he said, 'I'm afraid it is.' And I go...." She displays an expression of astonishment. "I just stood there. Froze right there. It was always one of my wildest dreams to meet him in person. He's kind of a mentor. He's one of my mentor wrestlers."
But Margaret and James and the rest of the Crocker Bunch don't like everything about the WLW. "I don't like Johnny Gold," James says.
"He's a baldheaded geek," says Bobby Helms. "And Matt's a bawl-baby. To tell you the truth, I think Johnny Gold needs to get suspended for using that cane."
The doors finally open, and the members of the Crocker Bunch head to their ringside seats. James and Bobby shed their red Pulaski County Sheltered Workshop jackets to reveal matching long-sleeved Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirts. Margaret wears one, too. The ring towers over them at the center of the basketball court's white vinyl-tile floor. It's surrounded by folding chairs and roll-away bleachers. Gray carpet clings to the bottom half of the walls; the upper portion is covered with white sheets of wavy steel. A crowd of 400 slowly filters in.
Just before showtime, a black limousine pulls up to the Civic Center's front door and delivers four men in their late teens and early twenties wearing stuffed-animal hoods over their heads.
James looks up and spots the characters marching into the gymnasium. "What in the Sam Hill is this?" he yells. "Ain't it enough we have to look at Johnny Gold? Now we have to look at this?"
The four men take seats at the opposite side of the ring. They are the Fulton Animals, that city's rowdiest WLW fans. "We love wrestling because it is a form of art," says Kris Wyatt, the oldest of the group. "It is more theater than sport, which is fine."
The Animals started showing up in the league's early days, when there were more empty seats than fans. The plan was simply to get on the wrestlers' nerves -- yell at them, sing songs, stuff like that. But the plan backfired. The wrestlers liked it.
Over the years, they've shown up dressed in gold-lamé Elvis suits, wearing kiddie cowboy hats or, on at least one occasion, toting hobbyhorses with girlish bows on their manes. They were so pleased with that stunt that they asked Trevor Rhodes what he thought of it. "He said he hated it," says Kris, a stocker at Fulton's Hy-Vee grocery store. "Straight face. Hated it. We were, like, whoa! Then he came out later on [a] pay-per-view [wrestling special] with a stick horse. So we chopped off the head of a stick horse and sent it to him. You know, like in The Godfather. We even made a little serial-killer note with letters cut out of magazines that said, 'We know what you did last pay-per-view.'"
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