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For decades amateur wrestlers have resented the "professional" version of their sport--not just for its choreographed action, bad acting and buxom ring valets but also because that being a part of that spectacle was the only way to make big money for doing anything even resembling wrestling. The amateurs, with their iron discipline and abs to match, remained true to their sport and spent their careers mostly grappling for medals. "Look at baseball, football or basketball players," says Jeff Prescott, a two-time NCAA champion who now coaches high school and club wrestling in South Florida. "I'm not taking anything away from those athletes, but I know how tough my sport is. I know not one of those guys could make it through my wrestling [training] room for one week."
Finally wrestlers have a chance to show off their talent and toughness to a wide audience--and to make a few bucks at the same time. RealPro Wrestling, a made-for-TV competition that combines serious wrestling with the presentational flair of WWE, debuts on March 27 as a nine-week series on Pax and Fox Sports. With rosters of seven wrestlers each, eight teams with such names as the Iowa Stalkers and the New York Outrage vie for $250,000 in prize money in a series that was taped on a Los Angeles soundstage last fall. Competitors enter the arena to pounding rock music and walk down a metal ramp to a circular set straight out of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
The rules, a hybrid of freestyle and Greco-Roman, are designed to encourage action. Points are earned in the traditional way, through takedowns, escapes and reversals, but a wrestler's margin of victory determines how many points he contributes to his team's score. (For example, if he wins 5-2, his team gets three points; a pin is worth 15.) So piling up points, rather than preserving a lead, is at a premium.
The cofounders of RealPro are Matt Case and Toby Willis, former wrestling teammates at Northwestern, and the latter has a deep personal stake in the series as well as a large financial one. In 1994 Willis lost five brothers and a sister in a car accident. They were traveling to a high school wrestling tournament when they ran over a truck taillight assembly, which caused their gas tank to ignite. Five years later a court awarded Willis, his parents and his two surviving siblings $100 million in damages. "The question came: What are you going to do with it?" says Willis, 34. "What can I do to turn this tragedy into something good?"
Willis won't specify how much he and his father, Scott, also a backer, have invested in RealPro but confirms that the outlay is in the millions of dollars. It shows in the first-class production of the series and in the personalities who've signed on. The sport's most visible American athlete, 2000 Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner, provides commentary on broadcasts, and its elder statesman, Dan Gable, serves as a RealPro consultant and spokesman. The organizers hope the series will be the seed for an ongoing league that would compete in arenas nationwide.
Gable has heard many half-baked proposals for leagues over the years, but he's convinced that Case and Willis are committed to elevating the sport while maintaining its integrity. "We've never had this chance before," Gable says. "If we don't take advantage of this and do it correctly, we may slip backward for a long time and not get another chance."
Pax flies low on the sports radar, and the Fox time slot (Wednesday afternoon) is not a good one, but Willis believes enough viewers will seek out his show to demonstrate that true wrestling has an audience. "We're bringing water to the desert," he says. "The wrestling community is big enough to bring us to Round 2. When we tell people we're doing this, we get one response over and over: 'It's about time.'"