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."
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!"