Small-time wrestlers try to live life large in the ring

Sunday, May 18, 2003

At 6-foot-3-inches about 230 pounds, Sandman is an intimidating figure.

Now 40, he's the first to admit he's living out his childhood dream and making a boatload of money doing it.

Sandman, of Extreme Championship Wrestling fame, wrestled in Cape Girardeau Saturday night to help promote the Gateway Championship Wrestling company, a St. Louis based minor-league wrestling outfit that is less intimidating and not flush with cash like nationally known organizations.

Nearly 70 pounds lighter than Sandman, Diamondback Dingo makes very little dough. Like many of the wrestlers, he prefers not to give out his real name. He won't even say where he works, other than to say he makes about $8 an hour as a maintenance worker when he's not traveling as a wrestler.

Dingo is the typical Gateway grappler -- a scrappy, colorful, cussin', smokin' tough guy who sacrifices his free time and his body for the oohs of a crowd, even if it's only about 150 people, like Cape Girardeau's draw at the A.C. Brase Arena Building Saturday night.

"I love it," Dingo said. "We all do; whether you're the good guy or the bad guy, we try to make the crowd happy. That's what makes us happy."

He's only 21, but he's broken all of his fingers, both of his thumbs, two ribs, all of his toes, his nose and collarbone at one time or another. After a wild match on Friday night, which included some barbed wire and some folding chairs, his forehead was scraped up. He sometimes uses super glue instead of stitches. Many of the wrestlers don't carry medical insurance, so there's a high risk and little reward, at least financially, in small-time professional wrestling.

Dingo said he makes between $10 and $125 a night. On average, he makes about $50. However, he trains two or three nights a week, plus there's travel time.

Dingo is a good guy in the ring and has a pleasant personality outside the ropes as well.

The characters Saturday night came in all sorts of shapes and colors. There were wrestling mimes, wrestlers with spiked and colored hair and a couple of wrestling divas. Some of the characters' personalities are similar to their out-of-ring personalities, only with the volume turned way up. Others are completely different.

Slim Sexy Sean Vincent is a self-absorbed punk in the ring, a guy who struts out to the song "Too Sexy" in shiny pants, a guy who sheds his shirt and proudly flexes his biceps for a crowd who boos and mocks him. Out of the ring, he's Chris Bradford, an assistant emergency room nurse at Christian Hospital Northeast in the St. Louis area, a guy who likes to help people.

Like Dingo, he's far from the physical specimen of Sandman. He stands about 5-foot-8-inches tall and weighs 155 pounds. But he still turned some impressive moves on a much larger opponent Saturday night.

Bradford said he was the kid everyone picked on in school.

When he's on stage, he doesn't have to be himself and he loves the escape.

"It's really weird," he said. "As soon as you hit the curtain, you make a transition."

Others, like Sandman, don't have to change.

"I was always the kind of guy who'd like to have a good time, go to a bar, have some drinks with some friends and play you a game of pool," he said. "Then, if I didn't win, I'd beat you up."

Sandman has made a career out of wrestling, while many of the Gateway wrestlers likely will never see nationwide fame. But Sandman shares their pain -- he can't walk too well anymore -- and their passion.

"I wanted to be a wrestler since I was 4 years old," he said. "I'll do it till I can't walk in the ring."

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6645

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