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THE NATION

In Georgia, it's a smackdown over wrestling rules

The safety regulations could hurt small-time operations in a state that reveres the sport.

January 01, 2008|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Eddie "Iceberg" Chastain, a 385-pound wrestler with a shaved head and a red goatee, calls himself the Being of Inconceivable Horror.

In the ring, he wields a fork -- just like his mentor, Abdullah the Butcher. He pummels his opponents with cross-face forearms, levels them with clotheslines and crushes them with avalanche splashes.

But outside the ring he has begun to show a softer side.

"You know, it's not actually my intent to hurt my opponent," he said in a telephone interview last week. "I never actually stabbed anybody with a fork."

Chastain is worried about his future as a wrestler in Georgia. Officials with the state's Athletic and Entertainment Commission, citing health and safety concerns, have proposed a strict set of regulations governing bouts. A physician, two emergency medical technicians and an ambulance must be ringside at all times, a costly measure that promoters say would force many small operations out of business.

Many of the rules are also at odds with wrestling's most cherished traditions. Wrestlers would no longer be allowed to physically or verbally threaten the audience. They could not engage in "unsportsmanlike or physically dangerous conduct." They could not even rub their own bodies with lotion.

"It's as if the officials who drew up the rules don't understand the concept of wrestling," said Bill Behrens, bookings director for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. "Wrestling is fiction. It's a passion play of good versus evil. Rules that attempt to tell us how to stage our show don't make sense."

Drawing up rules for how colossal, muscle-bound men should pretend to tear each other's heads off is, it turns out, a delicate matter. About 70 wrestlers and promoters, including legends such as Claude "Thunderbolt" Patterson, filled a recent commission meeting in Atlanta to offer critiques of the proposed regulations.

Unlike boxing and mixed martial arts fighters, they said, wrestlers simulate a fight with a predetermined outcome. Some argued their performances were more akin to ballet, theater and pop shows.

"We should be subjected to no more regulations than Hannah Montana," said Rob Fields, a 299-pound ordained minister who wrestles as Rob Adonis, referring to the Disney show about a girl who leads a double life as a pop singer. "Sure, Hannah Montana is singing, and we're slamming. But it's all make-believe."

Although the fighting is staged, wrestlers do not always successfully dodge the forks, baseball bats, axes, sledgehammers, frying pans and folding chairs that come their way. Many have the scars to show it.

J.J. Biello, chairman of the state commission, says he has watched professional wrestling matches since he was 12, and that comparisons to Hannah Montana are ludicrous.

"Yes, it's staged -- but that doesn't mean it's not rough," he said. "I've seen blood."

Over the years, he said, bouts have become increasingly flamboyant and wrestlers more powerful. He has seen a wrestler hurl a folding chair into the audience and blood dripping from wrestlers' heads.

"The more violence, the more things that blow up, that sells more tickets," he said. "We're just trying to make it safe."

Georgia legislators have attempted to tighten wrestling regulations since 2001, but safety became a particularly hot-button issue in 2007 after Chris Benoit, known as the Rabid Wolverine and the Crippler, killed his wife, son and himself at their suburban Atlanta home in June. Tests showed he had about 10 times the usual amount of testosterone in his system.

Local wrestlers point out that Benoit, a Canadian who held the world heavyweight championship in both World Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Entertainment, committed his crimes outside the ring. They fear the proposed rules -- which do not apply to operations with assets exceeding $25 million, such as World Wrestling Entertainment -- would mark the end of their shows in Georgia, long a hotbed of small-town wrestling.

During the 1970s and 1980s, communities across the state ground to a halt from 6:05 to 8:05 p.m. on Saturdays as residents watched Georgia Championship Wrestling on WTBS. Even former President Carter's mother, Lillian Gordy Carter, was reputed to have a favorite wrestler: Johnny Walker, aka Mr. Wrestling II.

"Not having wrestling in Georgia would be like New York not having baseball," said Bob Ryder, owner of www.1wrestling.com, who noted that the move reversed a national trend toward looser regulation. In the 1980s, Vince McMahon, chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment, coined the term "sports entertainment" to differentiate the discipline from sports, such as boxing, and to avoid tighter regulations. Until then, most professional wrestlers tried to hide that their battles were staged.

Although about 25 states have some kind of wrestling regulations, Ryder said, the rules Georgia officials are proposing would be the most strict.

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