Can an old bush-league ballplayer take Cleveland wrestling to the big time?

the sporting life Cleveland celebrities

The Masonic temple might be Lakewood's most beautiful building: a Grecian-style landmark overlooking Detroit Avenue, built in 1916 and sporting a facade of white limestone columns. And it hosts the appropriately grandiose traditions of the Freemasons — that male-only, not-so-secret society known for elaborate headgear, occult handshakes, and the membership of 15 American presidents.

But even for a clan with that kind of pedigree, maintaining a mammoth, 92-year-old building has a tendency to cut into the robe budget. So the temple is available nightly to any tenant who can pony up $500 for a six-hour rental — provided, of course, that there is no smoking, alcohol, or guns involved.

Fortunately, the Freemasons have no issues with stretchy latex. Because on the third Saturday night of every month, around 300 people flock to the temple to witness the latest installment of Cleveland's local spandex soap opera: Walter Klasinski's Pro Wrestling Ohio.

For a $10 fee, it's quite the show, if you're into this sort of thing. Three "PWO Girls" — women dressed like streetwalkers — saunter down the aisles and hold up signs announcing the next wrestlers. A moonfaced twentysomething announcer named Pedro does hyperactive play-by-play for Sports Time Ohio, the Indians' cable station. And a kid with greasy long hair and fingernails painted black plays referee. A cushy gig, really — officiating a match where every blow is exaggerated, every half nelson choreographed.

The wrestling troupe consists of young men fresh off day jobs, kids whose hammy acting makes those guys on pay-per-view seem Brando-esque. There's the pirate duo, who come bounding into the ring wearing bandannas and leather vests, brandishing dull swords. There's Hobo Joe, the actually homeless wrestler — or so he insists — who bumbles in to his entry music of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and shakes a tin can beseechingly at the audience. His uniform consists of torn jeans, a T-shirt, and lard-streaked hair, and he's slated to lose every time.

There's Gregory Iron, a wrestler with real-life cerebral palsy, which forces him to limp and curls his short right arm. He enters the ring wearing spandex littered with handicap symbols as well as his slogan: "One-armed and Dangerous." Pedro, the announcer, begs Iron's opponent to put this "waste of life" out of his misery. Nobody seems offended.

Iron's adversary is usually archrival Johnny Gargano, Klasinski's stepson and the federation's resident bad guy — a tall, hulking kid who fulfills pro wrestling's prevailing heavy-metal motif with long black hair, a black cutoff T-shirt, and spandex. If this is wrestling's minor leagues, Gargano is the Indians' Josh Barfield three years ago — the federation's best chance at transcending the temple and penetrating the WWE, wrestling's majors.

The wrestling style is inspired by the WWE, but in the way that Shark Tale was inspired by The Godfather. It's all high-flying rope jumps and open-palm beatdowns, but without the luxury of pyrotechnics or other distractions, the matches stretch on for so long that it seems Klasinski's found a way to stop time.

But don't tell that to the federation's loyal fans — mostly teenage boys, with some adult men sprinkled in. They throw homemade Hobo Joe T-shirts over jean shorts, stream loudly into the temple carrying signs, and roar without irony. In this cramped arena, the fans are able to play a role that they never would at a WWE stadium show. So they vehemently jeer the bad guy, laud the good guy, and feign shock at every predictable plot twist. Then, on Sunday night, they find their own screaming face on STO.

As his bootleg extravaganza plays out onstage, Klasinski, who's 51, can usually be found dashing around behind the temple's red velvet curtains, fixing costumes, confirming storylines with wrestlers, and patting them on the ass as they bolt to the stage.

A native Clevelander, Klasinski's doughy frame and button-round facial features are somewhat incongruous with the shoulder-length, delicately feathered brown hair that could get him mistaken for an aged rock star. His day job is as a truck driver, but for 14 years, wrestling has been his consuming passion. Every show is a culmination of a month of brainstorming and phone calls from the cab of a 24-foot truck. He pays these wrestlers up to $40 per show. It sounds stingy, until you hear his own take. "I had my best show ever last week," he says, not without pride. "And I still lost $375."

"If you feel like you're going to throw up," Klasinski instructs, "get the hell out of the ring! It's easier to clean it up outside of the ring."

A slightly pudgy kid named René, lying flat on his back in a ring, lifts his head above his chest to gaze dizzily at Klasinski. He holds up a clammy palm. It's not a reassuring gesture.

Klasinski's training facility is one corner of a partially abandoned knitting mill on West 25th — an airy brick building that also houses an amateur boxing gym. This is the unmarked campus of his PWO Wrestling Academy, where young wrestlers, most of them fans of the Masonic temple shows, train for their own chance to be on Klasinski's roster.

A dozen or so of these students congregate beside the ring. They look, for the most part, more Trenchcoat Mafia than the Bushwhackers — scrawny kids for whom fashion seems to boil down to Slipknot T-shirts, ponytails, painted fingernails, and transition-lensed eyeglasses. Few of them will ever make it onto STO, much less pay-per-view. But Klasinski won't cut them either. "I never want to squelch a guy's dream," he says. Especially not when the guy is paying $100 per month for instruction.

René, under the tutelage of Johnny Gargano, who's hanging over the ropes of the ring, has been practicing the proper way to flop noisily onto his back. He's thrown himself spine-first to the mat at least two dozen times, sending a loud thwack! throughout the room each flop. This is the first lesson of René's "tryout" with Klasinski — a privilege that costs $35.

René pulls himself off the mat, his face sweaty and bloodless, and valiantly hurls himself back down a few more times. "Not bad," says Gargano in his out-of-character voice, which is surprisingly effeminate. "Really smack it with your palm, though. You're kind of just grasping at the mat."

René responds by jumping to his feet and clambering wordlessly out of the ring and to a bathroom, effectively ending the tryout. When he re-emerges, the back of his T-shirt stained with chalk from the mat, Klasinski beckons him for a post-tryout chat. He's soon extolling the potential glory that comes with training for PWO. "I can put you on Sports Time Ohio, TV home of the Indians," Klasinski intones. "And on regional cable, where you can be seen throughout the continental United States."

René needs little persuasion. He's brought a clean stack of 20s with him and quickly puts them in Klasinski's outstretched hand. "I'm here for the long haul," says René.

"Hey, René," Klasinski says contemplatively, "Are you Latino?"

"Yes, sir. Puerto Rican."

"Perfect," Klasinski purrs. "That's a gimmick. People will love that. You can come out to Latino music. We'll drape you in a Puerto Rican flag."

René's too into the idea to consider taking offense. This is the birth of wrestling identity.

Klasinski has been waiting for his call-up all his life.

Playing catcher at Lincoln West High, Klasinski shared a battery with future major-league pitcher Dave Ford. Scouts that came to watch Ford were surprised by the sturdy build and scrappy, intense play of the kid that caught him. "I was not a gifted athlete," says Klasinski. "I was kind of an overachiever, where I worked extremely hard. And catcher seemed like the only position I could play."

The scouts scrawled his name in their notebooks, and after one year of studying media marketing at Baldwin-Wallace College, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1977. For Klasinski, quitting college was a no-brainer; the son of a Cleveland Water Department worker, he could no longer afford the tuition.

His professional baseball career lasted exactly one season, spent with the Pirates' Single-A affiliate in tiny Altoona, Pennsylvania. The crowds topped out at 1,500, but to a 20-year-old kid who had previously never been outside Ohio, the roving life of an athlete was a thrill.

After dabbling in amateur leagues and failing to impress at a few tryouts, Klasinski gave up on baseball. To make ends meet, he donned a different set of uniforms, working as a manager for fast-food eateries like Arby's and Mr. Hero.

Klasinski eventually saved enough to start his own general contracting company. But by his mid-30s, when his peers were settling down, Klasinski felt unfulfilled. He craved the attention, however fleeting, he'd received when playing pro ball, the call and response of doing something before a crowd.

His chance to succeed as an athlete had long ago expired. But there was that one so-called sport where faking it well was the foremost requirement. And that was something Klasinski thought he could still handle.

As a kid in the '60s, Klasinski had been a rabid fan of pro wrestling, a spectacle that was then in its infancy. He worshiped local wrestlers like Johnny Powers — a name now forgotten by almost everybody but him. And so, at age 38, when many men are resigning themselves to a life split between a time clock and a La-Z-Boy, Klasinski reverted to a dream he hadn't been naive enough to chase even as a teenager.

He and a buddy pooled their cash to buy a boxing ring, and after a few months of self-training, hit the road on the weekends, wrestling at high schools or community centers around the Great Lakes area.

As with his short-lived baseball career, Klasinski was once again at a physical disadvantage compared to his younger, more athletic counterparts in wrestling. He countered his limited abilities with shock value. Going by the name "Walt Juggernaut," Klasinski went "hard-core" — that brand of wrestling that's more grimace-inducing than high-flying, with wrestlers throwing each other on thumbtacks or slitting each other's heads with broken bottles, sending real blood spurting. The adrenaline masks the pain, but it makes for a bone-bruising hobby. "Come Monday morning, I couldn't even get out of bed," says Klasinski.

Klasinski recruited a few other wrestlers, and they slept in his van on road trips, performing shows in front of crowds as small as six for little more than gas money. For your average adult nearing middle age, this would make for a less-than-delightful weekend. "At the end of the weekend, we would have 40, 50 dollars profit, all told," he says. "It was basically for the love of it."

If Klasinski had gone on the road to escape the yoke of manhood, the plan failed. Family life found him at one of his dingy matches. Adrian Gargano was dragged by her nine-year-old son, Johnny, to one of Klasinski's shows at a Cleveland parking lot. Afterward, mother and son sought out Klasinski for an introduction. He and Adrian hit it off and, in a couple of years, were married.

For Johnny Gargano, his new stepdad's bloody hobby wasn't anything out of the ordinary. His father, Adrian's first husband, likes to hold wrestling matches in the parking lot outside his catering business. So young Johnny and his new stepdad were a ready-made duo. Gargano began practicing his moves immediately, and his first paid match would be as early as legally possible, on his 18th birthday — against Klasinski in his father's parking lot.

Adrian had gone from one household where the dinner-table conversation inevitably turned to headlock methods to another. But she's not sure why she attracts men obsessed with wrestling: "I don't understand the sport at all."

As for Klasinski's wrestling career, it ended three years after it began, about as ingloriously as his baseball career had. He can't even remember the town he was performing in; he can only remember the pain. His opponent had tried to toss Klasinski on his back, but he landed on his shoulder instead, breaking his collarbone. The opponent must have thought Klasinski's wincing was some of his best acting yet. "He tried to pick me up to throw me again," says Klasinski, "and I just told him, 'I'm down. We're finished.'"

Broken collarbone or no, the wrestling bug had bitten Klasinski severely enough that no injury could act as inoculation. He had always made more money renting the ring than wrestling anyway, he reasoned. Klasinski threw himself headlong into the managerial side of the independent circuit, partnering with other promoters to start federations, scout wrestlers, and schedule matches. He feathered his long hair in Hogan-esque fashion, allowing his hobby to seep into his everyday identity.

And when his contracting business folded five years ago, Klasinski got a job as a truck driver, freighting goods around the Midwest. "It gives me a lot of time to think about what I want to do with wrestling," he says of his new day job. "I really use the truck as my office now, calling people and setting everything up for the next show."

A little less than a year ago, for the first time, Klasinski went solo, starting PWO with no partners. For once, Klasinski — who often complains of having partnered with exploitative or ambition-deficient partners — could run a federation his way.

Most independent federations have their wrestlers aggressively hawk tickets themselves. Klasinski's stopped this practice, believing that it's an extra burden on already underpaid or pro bono performers. Another common practice is to hire washed-up stars for big fees to headline matches against local wrestlers. Klasinski, however, believes that if fans want to see stars, they'll turn on WWE. "This federation is my vision," he says, "and it's my principles."

Running his federation without a partner, Klasinski has sunk more of his own dollars into wrestling than ever before. "Let's put it to you this way," he says when asked to estimate his annual investment. "It costs $2,500 a month to put on the shows. Multiply that times 12. Then you multiply that times my time. Jeez, what is my time worth? I spend more time on wrestling than I do my job. Then you throw in my cell-phone bill and gas money . . .

"I don't even realize how much I've spent," he summarizes. "My wife could probably tell you, though."

Says Adrian Klasinski of her husband and son: "It makes them happy, but it gets very worrying. Sometimes I wish both of them would just throw in the towel on the whole thing."

But Klasinski has big plans for his homemade federation. As it stands, there are three well-known federations that have dwarfed all the rest — WWE, Total Nonstop Action, and Ring of Honor. Klasinski's dream is, within 10 years, to make PWO the fourth.

To make it that long, he'll have to break even sometime soon. "I can't continue to do it and not make money," he says. "I'd be happy if it just pays for itself. We're close."

To be a pro wrestler — at least at the highest level — is to have a gig where all it takes to be paid six or seven figures is to get smacked in the cranium with a folding chair and wince convincingly. Naturally, this is a highly sought-after position among many young people. In today's terms, in fact, it might be the most American of American dreams.

So even with wrestling in the midst of a cyclical bottoming-out in popularity, there is an army of teenagers, weaned on Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, vaguely determined to break into the sport's major leagues.

These kids make for a nice little cottage industry. Hundreds of schools have popped up around the country, of varying degrees of legitimacy. For a wad of bills stemming from Dad's wallet or a Dairy Queen paycheck, aspiring wrestlers can study the choke lift and the Tongan death grip, and come up with a compelling gimmick.

For a headhunter like Klasinski, the long grind tends to weed the talent for him. Most of these kids last until they realize just how unlikely a trip to the WWE is.

But for all the dabblers, Klasinski's one-year-old federation houses a few major-league prospects — guys that are more Lance Allred than Boobie Gibson, sure, but prospects nonetheless.

There's Jason Bane, PWO's resident big man — 6 foot 3 inches and a meaty 250 pounds, but listed by Klasinski as 5 inches and 50 pounds bigger. Having bounced around local federations for 10 years, he's got the experience and the build the WWE sometimes seeks out. He's been hired three times as a "jobber" — the industry term for a wrestler hired for one show to fill out background or take a dive against a star. He was used as an extra, which meant acting as another wrestler's henchman. "It was a pretty cool experience," says the mellow hulk. "It was like being on a movie set. And it was pretty good money for doing pretty much nothing but eating catered food."

At one point, Bane was offered a "developmental contract" by the WWE — no-strings-attached paid training, the beginning of almost every full-time career in the federation. Bane, a GM factory worker, turned it down. "I told the guy about how I had been hired permanently at General Motors," he says of the WWE recruiter. "He told me I might as well stay there. I still like doing this for fun. It's hard to walk away."

And then there's Gargano, who, not surprisingly considering his upbringing, has grown into a very skilled wrestler. His long-standing rivalry with the palsied Gregory Iron has made him a love-to-hate favorite with the Masonic temple crowds. "I'm basically the cocky, confident guy who kills the crippled guy," Gargano explains.

His future is so promising that some cynics speculate Klasinski keeps the federation running just for him. Conversely, whispers abound that Gargano wouldn't be anywhere without Klasinski. Either way, the buzz is that Gargano is on the cusp of a developmental contract — and that he certainly won't turn it down.

He got his own foray into the promised land when he jobbed a WWE show at Quicken Loans Arena — wrestled a match, and even met wrestling icon Vince McMahon. "It was really a dream come true," he says.

But it seems WWE wasn't too keen on the crippled-guy-killer gimmick. "We thought he was going to use his own Johnny Gargano persona," says Klasinski. "But instead, they had him come out as Cedric Von Haussen, German wrestling champ, holding a big beer stein."

The cab of Klasinski's truck has been a very busy place for the last couple of months. On August 3, he'll rent out the Plain Dealer Pavilion, the riverside concert venue on the West Bank of the Flats. In the 5,000-seat auditorium, all of this year's storylines will be resolved in a much-hyped event called Wrestlelution. It's an event that could push his federation into the black — or confirm its failure. Klasinski expects that the expenses for the date, all told, will run from $12,000 to $18,000.

He and a former business partner tried this same show last year — and the results were disastrous. It rained all weekend. Though the Pavilion is covered by a tarp, only about 1,000 people showed, most of them there on handout tickets. "We lost a pretty good amount of money last year," he says.

While he can't control the weather, he's hoping he's accounted for all possible conflicts this year. "I made sure that on that date," he says, "the Indians are out of town. The orchestra's out of town. There aren't any Blossom shows. The only thing is, Neil Diamond's in town. But most wrestling fans aren't Neil Diamond fans."

And, perhaps a bit desperately, Klasinski's breaking his own rules. At a recent practice, he distributed scads of tickets to his wrestlers, for them to sell for $10 each. And he's hired a few barnstorming former stars, including King Kong Bundy, the 400-pound behemoth known for once breaking a midget wrestler's back. Flying Bundy in and putting him up at the La Quinta will cost $1,600.

But to Klasinski, this is a one-time opportunity — the chance to push Wrestlelution, and PWO with it, over the hump. "Most of your so-called wrestling promoters, they're just happy with their 50-, 100-people crowds," he says. "I've always felt that you have to take a chance. As much effort as you put into it, is what you get out of it."

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