Who Let The Dogs Out?
by Kurt Opprecht

for the New York Sun, June 3, 2002

The sound of a body slamming onto the canvas makes a lot more noise than you’d expect. Saturday nights around 940 Jamaica Avenue in this warehouse district of Bushwick, you can hear that sound from blocks away. Interlaced with the thud of a traffic barricade hitting heavy shoulders, or the clatter of a folding chair against a fuzzy head, that body slam explosion is coming through the open garage door of the Doghouse Wrestling Club.

For the men and women here who dream of mixing it up with Hollywood Hulk Hogan, The Rock, or hardcore wrestlers abroad, the DWC is the only venue in the city where they can perform in a real ring, for a real audience, against real opponents every week. This is the minor league stadium of the pro wrestling world.

Wrestling exhibitions of this scale are not regulated by New York City or State authorities, but gym owner Bobby Lombardi, who started the DWC in this warehouse three years ago, likes to characterize his Saturday night fights as an "underground operation." Mr. Lombardi was once an aspiring wrestler himself. He now manages a cab company in Ridgewood, Queens and puts his energy into developing younger wrestlers. "Most of the guys wrestling in the east coast independents stem from me," he says.

Professional wrestling’s surge in popularity over the past decade has spawned a new generation of kids who aspire to the ring the way young Tiger Woods aspired to the links. The scene at the Doghouse is a far cry and a few head scissors away from the honor and glamour of primetime TV wrestling, but for many of the young men here, this is one step off the street and up the ladder.

Mr. Lombardi considers himself a type of youth counselor for the 100 or so wrestlers, aged 13 and up, who train at his gym during the week. "They’ve got great talent, they’ve got heart, they’re good kids. A lot of them would be in jail or in trouble or on drugs," he says. "If I give up, these guys ain’t got nowhere to go."

"We’re trying to get these guys to come in from the backyards and garages and give them some instruction and a place to perform where it’s more safe, where there are some rules," says Laithon Wilkerson, a.k.a. Tower of Torture, one of six trainers with the Doghouse gym. "I’m not saying we don’t get hurt, just that there is a lot you have to learn before you can do some of these moves." Mr. Wilkerson says that wrestlers aren’t allowed to throw an opponent against the ropes, fight and jump outside the ring, or use chairs as weapons, until they have received appropriate instruction.

At nine o’clock, in the third match of a recent Saturday night, the Grim Reefer (Kevin, 21) has Yung Cannibal (Angel, 15) flat on the mat in a head lock. The referee on hands and knees slaps the mat once, twice, but before hand meets mat for the third and decisive whack, Cannibal pulls a swift reverse, stands and hoists the Reefer to his shoulders and drops him hard.

The Grim Reefer appears to be immobilized by the blow, as his opponent climbs the ropes. For a moment, Yung Cannibal stands at the corner high above the ring, arms raised in the cone of halogen light. The fans chant, "Can-ni-bal! Can-ni-bal!" He leaps from the top of the corner post, sails though the air and lands hard upon the mat, deceptively close to the dazed Reefer. The sound reverberates off the concrete walls like a cannon shot.

Those who might scoff that professional wrestling isn’t really wrestling, and certainly isn’t a sport, maybe just haven’t seen enough of it to realize they’re barking up the wrong tree. None of the crowd of 50 to 100 aficionados here who periodically spring from their plastic chairs to lean against the steel barricades and cheer the "faces" or boo the "heels" are asking each other "is this real?" No more do opera fans in their velvet seats ask themselves whether the diva playing the role of Carmen has actually just broken off relations with the tenor playing the role of Don José.

Ring side seats at the Doghouse may never have the caché of box seats at the Met, but there’s something alarmingly charming about the show here in Bushwick. More than the sweat and the costumes and the props and the chance to taunt someone twice your size, it could be knowing that everyone at this venue is giving 100 percent (in sports talk, that’s 110 percent). Who in his right mind would be here if his heart weren’t in it?

The evening’s winners are pre-determined by trainer Louis Ramos, a.k.a. Low Life Louie, but not disclosed in advance. This week, in his defeat of the Grim Reefer, Yung Cannibal captured the "International Heavyweight Championship" title within the DPW (Doghouse Pro Wrestling) federation. Angel Santiago, 15, won’t be wearing the title belt to class at Bushwick High School, where he is a sophomore; it stays at the gym, where he says he trains nearly every day. Angel’s trainer, Homicide, travels to matches in Japan, where Santiago also hopes to make a name for himself in wrestling after he finishes school.

When asked if he had anything to say to New York Sun readers, Angel showed a media savvy that will serve him well in his future career. "You mean, gimmick-wise?" he said. Then, after a pause, Yung Cannibal delivered in character, "I want everybody to get ready. Because I’m going to explode in these next couple of years and you better be ready for me."

Most wrestlers on the DPW Saturday night roster are not as young as Mr. Santiago, but all share a hope of making a bigger name for themselves in other venues. Many travel to New Jersey or Philadelphia for matches, but the Doghouse Gym is their home base.

Like his young wrestlers, owner Bobby Lombardi hopes make it big in his own way. He plans to convert half of his body shop into a ring with a small television studio. "I’m still only going to be able to fit 150 people in there," Mr. Lombardi says, "But it’s going to be in a different neighborhood where people aren’t afraid to come."

Surely there is a safe place in the city where kids can put on a good clean fight.

Doghouse Gym, 940 Jamaica Ave., Bushwick, Brooklyn; 516-250-2506; www.doghousewrestling.cjb.net.

(This version is slightly longer than that which ran in the Sun.)


 © Kurt Opprecht, 2002

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