Normal Joes by day, chest-thumpin’, venom-spewin’, body-slammin’ animals by night. Think you’ve got what it takes to be a pro wrestler? Climb into the ring with one of these guys. You might just change a kid’s life.
Billy Bax of The Valedictorians (left) “Cheetah Master” Mike Womer
Photographs by Dominic Episcopo www.episcopo.com
The Cheetah Master has gone bad.
Standing in the center of the powder-blue canvas ring, he chides nearly 300 kids packed into the gymnasium at the Boys and Girls Club in Newark.
“Shut up, you punks,” he snarls. “I am the greatest wrestler any of you have ever seen, and I am the only reason you pieces of trash came here tonight. So boo me all you want.”
The kids oblige happily. It’s three minutes into another East Coast Wrestling Association event, and they’re already worked into a lather. A group of youngsters who probably aren’t old enough to know what it means are chanting, “You sold out!” One kid even points his finger at Cheetah Master and pirouettes in place.
ECWA superstar Cheetah Master
The Delaware-bred ECWA is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. For the past 15 years, Cheetah Master (real name: Mike Womer) has been its biggest hero. But tonight, in a stunning development, he’s executed a turn: He’s changing from a good guy, or “face,” into a heel. For the couple hundred fans who follow the promotion, this is worse than Judas’ betrayal of Christ.
Stripped down to his trademark cheetah-print tights and taped-up limbs, the Master boosts the vitriol to another level. Water spews from his mouth and onto the crowd between insults. The room smells like sweaty gym mats and hot dogs—yet the fans can’t seem to wipe the grins off their faces.
Loving to hate the bad guy is what tonight’s all about. Cheetah Master puts his opponent, the all-American Andrew Ryker, in a devastating figure-four leglock when, suddenly, the cherubic Freak Nastty (Cheetah’s one-time protégé) storms the ring, sending the audience into hysterics. When the man they call Freak delivers a boot to Cheetah’s spine, the kids bound up and down on the guardrail.
In a way Cheetah’s turn to the dark side helps pass the torch to Freak Nastty, who will slide into the spotlight as a top-flight face. Behind the scenes, Womer couldn’t resist becoming a bad guy. It’s just more fun that way, he says. Fans seem to agree.
“Don’t worry,” says Jim Kettner, president of the ECWA. “In a year, we’ll change him back and everybody will go nuts.”
The Cheetah Master is a bad guy. It’s hard to imagine anything more nuts than that.
Wrestling is a big man’s game “inside the ring and out,” Kettner says.
Kettner, 5-foot-5 and 170 pounds soaking wet, knows the ECWA will never be World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the World Wrestling Federation), the largest force in pro wrestling. “Vince McMahon is Vince McMahon,” he says of the WWE’s mercurial president. “We’re the little guys.”
And that’s sort of the point. His league, the only one of its kind in Delaware, is an institution, a true down-home cottage industry. About 300 people attend local matches every other month. His wrestlers, about 25, are mostly part-timers. A few are Delawareans, but all are from the region. There’s little glamour and even less of a budget, but the quality and consistency of Kettner’s promotions has made the ECWA one of the most respected and best-known independent wrestling companies in the United States.
Top Villain Mr. Ooh La La
Kettner estimates that there are about 200 independent groups across the country, though most are untrained backyard operations. Maybe 15 are recognized at the level of ECWA.
More than 700 wrestlers have slid between the ropes during the ECWA’s 40-year history. Many are white-collar folks by day who squeeze themselves into white Spandex by night, but a few have gone on to careers in WWE or the highly regarded Total Nonstop Action Wrestling league. ECWA alumni of the former WWF—George “The Animal” Steele, Mick Foley, the Hardy Boyz, Kurt Angle, Charlie Haas, Tito Santana and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan—have become famous enough to have their own action figures.
A DuPont facilities coordinator by day, Kettner’s industriousness and savvy have taken him and his wrestlers all the way to Madison Square Garden. His knack for promotion helped forge a relationship with McMahon and the WWE. Whenever WWE’s “Smackdown” comes to the area, Kettner helps with promotion.
In the process, Kettner has changed the lives of his athletes, as well as fans. The league works closely with the Boys & Girls Club and the Special Olympics—all that in addition to putting Delaware pro wrestling on the map. “People get into wrestling for a lot of reasons,” he says. “But most of them are trying to live out a childhood dream.”
Kettner included. He founded the ECWA in 1967 with two pieces of rug—sorry excuses for mats or canvas—in his backyard. He and a couple friends built their own ring, then began inviting neighborhood kids to watch their matches for a nominal fee. “It pretty much blossomed from there,” he says.
Of course, “blossomed” is a bit of a non sequitur, because today most ECWA events draw only a few hundred spectators, creating an intimacy equaled only by those old backyard stomp-downs.
“It’s important not to waver too far from our original roots,” Kettner says. “It’s not there to make a ton of money, but it’s here to show people a good time. We’ve had some of the same fans for the past 20 years. It’s every promoter’s dream to have that kind of loyal support.”
Small-town autonomy is the cornerstone of the ECWA and a source of pride for Kettner and his crew, who value family friendly entertainment above all else. Unlike other pro wrestling circuits where blood, boobs and snuff material are increasingly part of the repertoire, ECWA performers never curse. Any blood spilled is purely accidental, whereas, in other leagues, wrestlers will cut and gouge one another to produce bloody wounds.
In lieu of eye-popping spectacle, ECWA performers act out their matches as equal parts surgeon and thespian, executing precise wrestling moves while emoting to the crowd like an Oscar hopeful.
Billy Bax of The Valedictorians tag team
In the history of pro wrestling, the biggest stars have a goofy sense of earnestness that makes it seem that what they do inside the ring is heroic and true. In 1991, when a bloodied Hulk Hogan pinned “Iraqi-sympathizer” Sgt. Slaughter at the Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles amid a wash of American flags, screaming kids and ripped yellow Spandex, much more seemed at stake than the WWF Heavyweight Championship. Such moments loom larger than life to the kids who watch. To them the war was over, and Hulk Hogan had won it.
That same kind of glow radiates at ECWA events, only on a much smaller scale. The performers know their jobs, and that usually means giving the fans heaping spoonfuls of exactly what they want. When a face gets introduced and makes his way toward the ring, the kids rush the guardrails, hoping to get a high five. They mimic the poses and flexes of their muscular heroes.
“If that don’t give you chills, you’re dead, man,” Womer says. “You have the power to impact a child’s life at that point. To have a child come up to you, eyes as big as saucers, and ask you for an autograph—if that don’t melt you a little bit…”
“It’s bigger than life to them,” Kettner says. “The kids who come in and get all bug-eyed and say, ‘Look, Dad. There’s the ring!’—those are the people we want.”
Womer was attracted to the ECWA because of its close interaction with kids. As a counselor at a children’s home, Womer rewarded the best-behaved kids with a trip to a wrestling match. Each time, Kettner asked Womer to join the roster. Each time, Womer declined.
“They eventually did a show for a little girl who needed an organ transplant, and Jim asked me on board,” Womer says. “Who’s going to say no to that?”
It didn’t take long for Womer to become a sensation in the ECWA. His character, the Cheetah Master, is a cocky, bleached blonde high-flyer, equal parts Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and David Lee Roth.
“When Jim and I got together to make this character, it wasn’t even close to that,” Womer says, laughing. “It was a whole evolution. If you pay attention, use your street smarts and observation skills, you’ll determine very quickly what works. You’ll hear the audience respond. We call it ‘pop.’ When you hear what makes them pop, you know you gotta do more of that.”
This area of performance is where Mike Houghton makes his living. Since 1990 he’s wrestled under the guise of Mr. Ooh La La, a bumbling, obnoxious Frenchman who goads the audience with a bad Pepé Le Pew accent and the occasional stink bomb. The North Wilmington resident is a relatively mild-mannere