Tugboat Taylor was minding his business, just telling one of his
scholars to step on the head of another, when a visitor asked
the rudest question: "This is all pretty fake, isn't it?"
The question landed on Tugboat's fleshy face like an atomic
drop. "You can call it entertainment," he said. "You can call it
showbiz." But, he growled, "fake is a real ugly word." Anyone
who applies the word fake to professional wrestling should step
into the ring with Tugboat. "Put the banana split on you," he
promised. "You'll probably get stretched out real bad."
His voice sounded as if he were chewing rocks. When he smiled,
his mouth turned down at the corners. There are 370 pounds of
Tugboat. Even at 51, he says, he's still the meanest of the mean
and the toughest of the tough. And this is what it takes to be
founder and proprietor of Tugboat Taylor's School of
Professional Wrestling. The institute, which is in Houston,
downtown near the jail, is a dim warehouse with one exercise
bike, one couch and one wrestling ring. It seems, when it's
quiet, like the setting for a sober one-act play. But then the
security guards roll in with the laborers and the salesman and
the mechanic, and suddenly they're transformed into Rhino and
Big Buddha, Danger Man and the Love Machine. With kamikaze
screams, they begin jumping from the top rope onto one another,
and the ring is like a living room full of children after their
parents have walked out. Aaeeeyah! The Top Cop flattens the
Latin Lover and then stands over him, twisting his arm. They
both grimace. Oh, this is hard work. Oh, the pain! Tugboat
surveys the scene and offers gentle advice. "Put your foot on
his forehead," he says to the Top Cop. The Latin Lover isn't
sure about this. "Isn't he supposed to kick me in the face now?"
the Lover asks.
"No," says Tugboat. "That comes later."
June 14, 1998
Tugboat has 12 scholars. They gather around the ring, awaiting
their turn. To a man, they want to be big names in the World
Wrestling Federation (WWF). Tugboat has promised them nothing
except that over a period of about two years, they will learn
"how to throw a shoulder and how to put a show on." Tugboat has
always enjoyed the show. Many years and 190 pounds ago, he was a
high school kid named Dickie Taylor who was one of the top
amateur wrestlers in Iowa. He loved smiling to the crowd as he
pinned his foe, but the training, with its rubber suits and
laxatives, left him cold. After wrestling in the Marines, he was
trying to sell real estate in Houston when he finally ran into
someone who liked his looks. The man wanted to call him Animal.
Dickie's mother insisted, however, that no baby of hers had ever
been an animal. Dickie and the pro wrestling promoter settled on
Tugboat, and Tugboat found that pro wrestling is different from
amateur in all the best ways: You get paid, you get to clown
around, and there are flying chairs and fists "just to keep it
interesting." Perhaps most important, "you can weigh as much as
you want," said Tugboat, "so you can eat what you want."
He waged his war throughout the regional circuit in the
southwest from 1980 to '83 but was never signed by the WWF. When
the growth of the WWF began killing his regional work, Tugboat
came home, a magnificent barrel of a human being ready to start
creating the wrestlers of tomorrow.
Tugboat Taylor's Rules of the Ring, Lesson No. 1: Chew gum. Your
opponent is actually your partner. If one of you gets
cottonmouth and can't speak, one of you is going to get hurt.
Lesson No. 2: When you hit the ropes, hit all three at once, or
fly over and die. Lesson No. 3: Grunt. "You've got to make
noise," Tugboat says. "People expect it." Lesson No. 4: When you
fall, slap the mat. It sounds nice and also reduces the impact
on your back. Lesson No. 5: The headlock is your friend--a good
way to rest in a long match. If you are in a headlock, make sure
you look up, so the crowd can see your pain.
Creating a good pro wrestler can take years--like making wine or
training cellists. Tugboat dreams of making enough good
wrestlers to bring regional wrestling back to Texas. His
scholars, in turn, dream of living large in the WWF. Never mind
that in 10 years, not one of his disciples has made it to the
WWF. This is the dream. It is all a dream.
"Kick him!" Tugboat screams. In the ring the Latin Lover looks
up at the Top Cop and says, "Ouch, dude! That hurts, for real!"
Randall Patterson is a writer who lives in Houston. This is his
first story for SI.
"You can call it showbiz," Taylor (right) said, but "fake is a
real ugly word."