School of Hard Knocks
For Furious George, making it to the pros won't be tough. He's anxious to learn all the moves and his personality is meant for steel-chair bashing.
George Kanakarakis is going through an identity crisis. At age 15, the 255-pound Queens resident is struggling with a question that could dictate the rest of his life. "Everybody wants me to be 'Furious George,' but I like 'Savage' because it's in my heart," he says. "My mom used to call me 'brown-eyed savage' when I was a kid. I just dropped the first two words." Yes, young Kanakarakis has dreams of becoming a professional wrestler.
But unlike other 15-year-olds, Kanakarakis has a wrestling gym down the block and a mother smart enough to make sure her oversized teenager does his drop kicks somewhere besides the living room. Once, Kanakarakis wanted to be an artist, going to Art & Design High School, but he transferred out. "Too much drawing every day," he says. Now he wants to wrestle. And he's been going to the North East Wrestling gym since it opened in May. By the time he turns 20, Kanakarakis says, he plans to turn pro.
Professional wrestling has a headlock on America's youth. From Web sites to magazines to action figures that ooze "sweat," it's an industry in full-throttle expansion mode. Just last week, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) announced its intention to go public, with hopes of raising $175 million in the process. In two weeks, Minnesota governor Jesse "the Body" Ventura is scheduled to guest-referee the WWF's SummerSlam ("An Out of Body Experience!") pay-per-view event. And WWF's Monday night Raw Is War telecast consistently tops the Nielsen ratings for cable programming.
Enter North East Wrestling, an Astoria social clubturnedtraining facility opened by longtime pro wrestlerdrillmaster Ben Lagerstrom. His sweat factory is stocked with overzealous teens all with the same dream of strapping on the tights and making fistfuls of cash. Flyers proclaim it "the ideal summer outlet." Students range from 13 to 28 years old and vary in weight and size.
"This is something I always wanted to do," says Kanakarakis, who's 5-10. "I always loved watching those guys wrestle. I was wrestling in my house, but I was doing it the wrong way. Then I came here, where they train you until you're ready, and if I can get my license by the time I'm 20 or so, I can get a job doing it."
For Furious George, it won't be tough. His personality is meant for steel-chair bashings and he's anxious to learn all the moves. ("Can I do a suplex off the second rope?" he eagerly asks Lagerstrom at one point. "Not until you're ready," his teacher answers.) Lagerstrom sees big things ahead for Kanakarakis, and has been helping him with his diet and workout regimen.
But for the other kids, of whom Lagerstrom thinks 80 percent will get their license, the competition won't be easy. "It's a monopoly of two companies," he says, "the WWF and Ted Turner's WCW [World Championship Wrestling]. What they do dictates the business. It's too violent, too risky. Everything is 'What's next?' and 'What's the next stunt?' It's too much for shock."
"It's a business," he reminds his students. "They're going to put a character and a gimmick on you and you'll hope you can pull it off."
And for $75 down and $200 per month, Lagerstrom guarantees those who make it out of his workshop their first professional match and a license to wrestle in New York. The state Athletic Commission oversees wresting here and grants the licenses on the recommendation of a certified trainer, in this case Lagerstrom. Outside the Empire State, wrestling is less regulated, and at least one student has taken advantage of this fact.
"I did a battle royal in Jersey once," says 16-year-old, 160-pound Paul "the Mercenary" Colletti, whose services went unpaid. "But that was before I came here. It wouldn't be a good idea for me to try it again," he says, echoing Lagerstrom's wisdom. "I'd just be exploited."
Colletti tag-teams with his girlfriend/ring escort, Julie Park, whom he met at a different gym. Five feet tall and 100 pounds, the soft-spoken young Asian woman with braces on her bottom teeth barely gets above a whisper when she talks about becoming a manager, wrestler, or lovemaking guru. Says the 20-year-old Queensboro College student, "I'm thinking of becoming a sex therapist." Her ring name? "Either 'Little Demonic' or 'G-Spot,' I think."
Between the ropes, however, Park exudes the confidence of her favorite wrestler, Debra, who, according to her WWF bio, "knows how to use her sexuality to achieve her ends" and "will flaunt her gorgeous body, even to the point of stripping, to get whatever she wants." Park doesn't take it off for the Astoria teens, mind you, but she's quite adept at offering elbow drags and well- orchestrated body slams.
Says Lagerstrom of his top female student, "She has that drive. She's very aggressive. Once she learns to jump and gain a little agility, she'll be set."
Lagerstrom doesn't talk at all about sexuality the main "talent" that women must possess to make it in the pro ring. But G-Spot says she's ready for the objectification that goes hand-in-hand with her ambition. She dismisses it as part of the "business" of "sports entertainment." And if her boyfriend starts pushing her around in the ring, she promises that she'll give it right back.
Most of Lagerstrom's students have their sights set on making the big time. "I want to be WCW cruiserweight champion," declares 17-year-old, 170-pound Karl Rocco, who also wrestles in a more traditional sense in high school. "This is a lifelong dream for me."
Lagerstrom is careful to temper such lofty goals without completely dampening his students' spirits. He accomplishes this by focusing on the basic techniques of becoming an "athletic performer," as the WWF calls its wrestlers. "Sometimes a kid will come to me and ask, 'What do you think of this theme music?' " says Lagerstrom. "But I just say, 'How do you take a hip toss?' Once, I had a kid ask me how to take a chair. I said no. They can learn that stuff when they go pro."
For now, it's wrestling for purists on the corner of 41st and Astoria Boulevard. Leg drops, eye gouges, and the occasional "bronco buster." For the lucky ones, the steel chairs and "bloody" foreheads will come later.
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