Truth Or Derek

James Rickerson hates Derek McQuinn’s guts. His entire body stiffens when “Dangerous” Derek emerges from the locker room dressed in sparkly gold lamé, his fists raised high above his head.

James bolts upright from his ringside seat at the Eldon Community Center, shakes a fist in the air and screams, “You go home, Derek! We don’t need you here!”

James is as tall and skinny as an antique lamppost, with thick blond hair flowing straight back from his retreating hairline and a bushy mustache riding the crest of his gaunt face. His blue eyes lock into a stare of pure venom across the gymnasium.

Dangerous Derek descends the stairs and struts through the booing crowd, bounds up into the ring and jumps onto the second rope, where he stands for a moment, arms outstretched like Rocky Balboa.

James blows a raspberry at him.

Derek is not the kind of wrestler James came to see. James drove into the small Ozarks town all the way from Crocker — a hamlet forty or so winding miles southwest of Eldon — just to see this World League Wrestling match. He came with his friends Bobby Helms, Margaret Tarpy, Sue Clotworthy and Jenny Walters — “The Crocker Bunch” — whose members range in age from late thirties to early fifties.

They’re crazy about the WLW, a small-town pro-wrestling circuit that offers big heroes. After a long week at the Pulaski County Sheltered Workshop, tying lures that’ll be sold at Bass Pro Shops and Wal-Mart, James and his pals want to see honest warriors like Trevor Rhodes or the towering Bull Schmitt walk away with a WLW championship belt — not some arrogant punk like Dangerous Derek, who has been a cheater ever since he joined forces with the slick “manager” Johnny Gold. Every time Derek and his other “Gold Exchange” wrestlers take to the ring, Johnny Gold paces just beyond the ropes, spinning an old-fashioned walking cane between his fingers. When Derek gets into trouble, Johnny slides his cane into the ring, hooks it around the opponent’s foot and trips him to the mat — just enough distraction to allow Derek to finish the poor sucker with his trademark “spear” move.

Derek tears off his shimmering vest and takes his position just outside the ring for the start of the WLW Tag Team World Championship.

Inside the ring, his partner, “All That” Matt Murphy, stares down Bull Schmitt. Derek glances over at the Crocker Bunch.

James and Bobby leap up like ravenous dogs. “Go home, Derek!” James yells. Then both of them chant together, “Go home! Go home! Go home!”

Derek’s face hardens into a scowl. He aims his beady, sunken eyes at James and sneers through his goatee. “Shut up!” he brays, pointing right at the Crocker Bunch. “You just shut your mouth.”

The folks in Crocker may hate Derek McQuinn, but he’s loved in the Northland.

“He’s not really a bad guy,” says Leonard Rose, who lives in a blue split-level off 87th Street and North Oak Trafficway. His wife, Shirley, agrees. “People jeer at him,” she says. “But we know what he’s really like.”

Admittedly, these are biased opinions. The Roses are Derek’s grandparents. “He was a very kindhearted kid who would look after his brothers,” Shirley says. “In grade school, he saw some bullies picking on another kid, and he stepped right in there and made them stop.”

“He was not a fighting kid,” Leonard adds. “We’re proud that he lives by the principles of joy — J.O.Y. — J for Jesus first; the O for others second; and the Y, you put yourself last.”

Still, Derek always had a fierce competitive drive. Family legend has it that even in kindergarten, when other kids were preoccupied with Kool-Aid and alphabet blocks, Derek was trying to get in shape. When Shirley would pick him up after school, he would insist that she follow behind in the car so he could run home. Over the years, Shirley and Leonard showed up for countless football, softball, baseball and basketball games. “We’ve sat out in the cold weather and watched him a lot,” Leonard says. “He goes the whole 150 percent.”

Derek is grateful for their support. One of the reasons he’s pushed himself so hard, he says, is because he didn’t have a father around. His dad left home when he was very young. “I never knew him,” he says.

Growing up in Johnson County, Derek sensed that something was missing. His grandparents, his mom and his uncle were always in the stands, but as he would run out to the field, he’d look back and see all the other kids’ dads cheering. Instead of feeling sad, he got motivated. “I wanted to prove to them that I was going to be good,” he says. “Just because I didn’t have a father teaching me things didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.”

He made varsity his sophomore year — no small task for a short kid at a big school like Shawnee Mission North. His senior year, in a 1994 game against perennial powerhouse Lawrence High School, he grabbed a loose ball and scrambled 60 yards downfield for his first defensive touchdown. His accomplishments on both sides of the scrimmage line were enough to win him football scholarships at two schools — Mid-America Nazarene University in Olathe and Emporia State. To the delight of his grandparents, he chose the Christian school. He was rewarded with a trip to the Wheat Bowl in Elwood, where he and his teammates trounced Ottawa University.

Derek was the first in his family to go to college. Today, he’s grateful that it was a Christian school. He says he wasn’t raised on religion and rarely attended church. But in Olathe, he had to attend services twice a week and take religion classes. “It was the best thing that happened in my life,” he says. “It helped me to understand not just religion but life.”

Derek says he lives by one verse: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

He graduated with a degree in criminal justice, armed for what he says is his calling — working with children. This summer, he accepted a job offer from a juvenile correction facility in Columbia, Missouri.

But Derek almost never made it through college. During his sophomore year, he read a newspaper article about Harley Race’s wrestling school. He’d already been searching for a way to break into pro wrestling. Derek had been a fan of wrestling since Wrestlemania 3 in 1987, when Macho Man went head to head with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat in what many fans still hail as the best match of all time. The two battled for what seemed like hours in Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome, which was packed with 93,000 frenzied fans. Over the years, Derek and his brother would watch World Wrestling Federation matches on Sunday nights and then re-enact them in their bedroom.

Derek especially liked Randy Savage, a bad guy who happened to be shorter than the Goliaths who tend to dominate the pro circuit. Seeing a short guy dishing out pain gave Derek hope that one day he’d be there, too. But every wrestling school he came across on the Internet was hundreds of miles away. So when he discovered a training camp in the Ozarks, it felt like a godsend — especially when the school was taught by the one and only Handsome Harley Race, who had ruled the National Wrestling Alliance for decades and won nine world championships.

Race had grown up in Quitman, just this side of the Iowa border due north of Kansas City. As a teen in the late ’50s, Race had a job working for Stanislaus Zbyszko, who’d been two-time world heavyweight wrestling champion in the 1920s, and his brother Wladek (Walter), who owned a farm nearby. Sometimes after Race finished his field chores, the Zbyszko brothers would take him to the barn and teach him a few moves.

“They’d show me just enough to keep hurting me,” Race recalls, “so I would continue doing farm work.”

After that, Race made the jump to the big city: St. Joseph. He hooked up with Gust Karras, who was the promoter in the ’50s. Karras started young Harley on his county-fair circuit; they’d roam the back roads of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska, set up a ring and take on all comers. “That’s where I learned the head butt is a hell of a good weapon,” Race says. A few of Karras’ top wrestlers — namely “Killer” Buddy Austin and Ray Gordon — became Race’s mentors. Then Race left Karras for a full-time job driving Happy Humphrey — a 785-pound wrestler — around the country. At a time when a burger cost 10 cents, Humphrey ate $30 to $40 worth of food a day. They traveled in a 1951 Pontiac with doors specially hinged so Humphrey could squeeze in. “When he got into it, it was like you had power steering,” Race says.

After a year and a half of carting around the big guy, Race decided to break away and make a name for himself. The choice led him to Nashville, Tennessee, where he teamed up with Billy Strong. Calling themselves Jack and John Long, they won the Southern tag-team title. During the ’60s, Race bounced back and forth across the country — from Nashville to St. Joseph to Amarillo (he was there when Kennedy was shot) to San Francisco, then back to St. Jo to Minneapolis — until he finally settled down, in 1970, in Kansas City. In the early ’70s, he wrestled without fail three nights a week — Tuesdays in Sedalia, Thursdays at Memorial Hall in KCK and Fridays in St. Jo. In 1973, he won his first world title.

For the next two decades, Race was a bona fide jet-set wrestler, throwing body slams from Tacoma to Tokyo and picking up eight world titles. On March 29, 1987, he body slammed Andre the Giant at the same Wrestlemania 3 that had fueled young Derek’s dreams. Andre weighed more than 500 pounds, but Race had managed to lift him above his head — a feet no other wrestler had ever managed. “[Hulk] Hogan only got him about chest high,” Race recalls.

But it was Hogan who knocked Race out of the ring for good. At a Nashville match against Hogan in the late ’80s, Race bruised his intestines. The damaged tissue later burst, spilling poisonous bacteria into his system. Seven abdominal surgeries later, Race is lucky to be alive. But Race hung around the business until the mid-’90s when, on a routine drive through downtown, he hit a pothole. The car’s air bag exploded in his face, causing him to crash. For that he won an artificial hip and a front-row seat to boredom.

Race and his wife, B.J., moved to the Ozarks, but he couldn’t deal with all the free time. So in 1999, he started his own wrestling league and school: World League Wrestling and the Harley Race Academy.

Derek waited until after graduation to try out. He made the first of many three-hour drives southeast from Kansas City to Eldon, a village of 5,000 just north of the Lake of the Ozarks. Driving past rows of country houses with prim lawns and picket fences, he turned onto Maple Street and easily spotted Race’s place. It was nestled between antique shops, the Midway Barber Shop and the Eldon News Shop, where folks from as far as Jefferson City bought their copies of Hustler, Barely Legal and Plump but Pink.

Stretching across two storefronts was a sign declaring “WORLD LEAGUE WRESTLING HEAD-QUARTERS.”

Twenty-five other WLW wanna-bes submitted to the rigors of the tryout — huffing through jumping jacks and push-ups and squirming free from twisty holds. At the end of a long day, Derek found himself in the cramped office at the back of WLW headquarters face to face with a legend. Derek felt almost giddy when Race told him he’d been impressed with Derek’s abilities and extended an invitation to enroll in the academy. He was one of only three from the tryout who agreed to join the six-month, $3,000 program. Driving home, he was breathless. It seemed almost too good to be true. He was just a short kid from the suburbs, yet he suddenly was on his way toward a chance to do battle with the giants of pro wrestling. He couldn’t wait to tell his family.

“Everyone has a childhood dream,” he says. “It was like, wow, this actually might happen.”

Training started with “bumps,” falling down over and over and over again, first from a sitting position — holding the ropes and then flopping on his back — then standing up. After that, he started “running the ropes” — bouncing back and forth across the ring until long bruises formed across the top and bottom of his back.

It was worse than he’d expected. Derek had gone in thinking that wrestling was just choreographed, pretend violence. But reality snuffed his naïveté. “Falling down constantly for two hours takes a toll on your back,” he says. “I didn’t think any of that stuff was going to hurt. I didn’t expect it.”

He suffered bruises, a broken hand and, after one particularly nasty clothesline move, a trip to the hospital on a stretcher. But he fortified himself with the same energy that had driven him to run home from kindergarten years ago.

Derek made his professional debut with a cast on his hand. He tore through the WLW like a tsunami, earning a title shot against the Drill Sergeant within months. He lost that match, but his fearless enthusiasm caught the attention of cane-toting manager Johnny Gold, who plays a role in Race’s traveling show as the crooked leader of a stable of villains.

“There are a couple of things that could have gone better in that match for Derek if I’d been there,” Gold says with a wink.

Gold has made a career out of dirty shortcuts, and for the starry eyed “Dangerous” Derek, he offered a quick ride to fame and fortune.

This past March, when Derek announced his new alliance at an event in Hollister, Missouri, the good Christian boy knew the crowd would boo him. But he didn’t care. “I told everybody why I did it,” he says. “I went with the winning team.”

Even Derek’s grandparents feel somewhat uneasy with the path he’s chosen. “We’d rather he be a good guy,” Shirley admits. “But we know how he really is.”

“People are kind of funny,” Leonard adds. “They want blood. It gives them more adrenaline. People are just that way.”

“We’ve always been proud of him,” Shirley says.

“You can tell we’re proud of him,” Leonard says.

The way Derek sees it, Jesus doesn’t have a problem with him yelling “Shut up!” at little kids and mildly retarded grown-ups. “It depends on how you look at it,” he says. “As far as wrestling goes, He’s given me the ability. It’s a sport. It’s entertainment for everybody.”

Dangerous Derek presses between the ropes and steps into the practice ring at WLW headquarters in downtown Eldon. He bounces up and down a couple of times to shake the stiffness out of his limbs.

The ring takes up most of the room. Mementos cover the walls: championship plaques inscribed in Japanese, official proclamations of Harley Race Days in Missouri communities as small as New Florence and as big as St. Louis County, a little plastic Harley Race doll sealed in its original packaging. Photos are everywhere — Race posing beside Muhammad Ali, Race with his arm around Mr. T, Race strangling a wrestler with the ropes, Race with his foot stomping an opponent’s face. In the boxed-in office at the back of the space, several desks are buried by posters for WLW shows far into the future, all of which declare that the WLW champion, Takao Omori, will be defending his title. League officials are either extremely confident that Omori will win all of these matches — or the outcomes have already been determined.

Across the ring from Derek stands Tom Angelo — a tall man who, with his shaved head and buff arms, looks like Nosferatu‘s Count Orlok on steroids. Angelo is a newbie from Wichita, just four months into the wrestling academy. Derek charges him, and the two lock arms around each other’s heads. Within minutes, Derek has lifted Angelo over his head, and Angelo is wailing — “No! No!” — at the impending body slam. Dazed by the ensuing fall, Angelo is easy prey for Derek’s signature closing move, the spear. Derek propels himself headfirst toward his opponent’s kidneys.

Angelo slumps out of the ring and paces aimlessly, wincing and holding his side.

Trevor Rhodes, the head trainer for this WLW practice on the eve of the annual Eldon match, shakes his head as he watches Derek march around the room with his chin up and his chest puffed out.

Rhodes, the clean-cut hero of the Crocker Bunch, was one of the first graduates of Race’s wrestling academy — and one of the first to be screwed over by Johnny Gold’s Gold Exchange. “All That” Matt Murphy had been his partner and best friend until a fateful match in Kohoka, Illinois, at which Matt had turned on him and pounded his head into the mat with a dangerous pile-driver move that put him on the disabled list for six months. As trainer for the night, Rhodes decides to administer a little punishment to the Gold Exchange’s youngest punk.

Rhodes orders Derek back into the ring to face Tim War Cloud, a three-year veteran from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. All the WLW wrestlers seem to like the friendly War Cloud, who is part Cherokee and part Catawba. On match nights, he prances into the ring wearing a feathered Indian headdress. His ring technique is peppered with hand chops and war cries. “It kind of perpetuates some stereotypes,” he admits in his amiable Southern accent. “But it seems also the American Indians want to see one of their own out there wrestling. I see that especially when we get out to matches on the reservations and casinos.”

Derek and War Cloud circle each other, and, within moments, Derek has a meaty arm wrapped around War Cloud’s neck. “You don’t have to choke him,” Rhodes complains from ringside. “It’s just practice.”

Without loosening his hold on War Cloud, whose face is turning purple, Derek scowls at Rhodes. Derek releases War Cloud, springs off the ropes and spears the Indian to the mat. War Cloud lies there a minute or two, massaging his rib cage.

Rhodes looks over at Wade Chism, his tag-team partner. Both shake their heads in disgust.

With little rest, Derek finds himself back in the practice ring, this time against the champ, Takao Omori. His features framed by a wide mohawk and a neatly trimmed goatee, Omori is on an American sabbatical from the lucrative NOAH wrestling league in Japan. He came to the Ozarks to learn from the renowned Race and, he hopes, to get a shot at the big show: Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (which changed its name from the World Wrestling Federation after a dispute with the World Wildlife Foundation). “I deal with them on a daily basis,” says Race, who, after spending most of his life in pro wrestling, has connections top to bottom.

Though he maintains a professional relationship with McMahon and his cronies, Race doesn’t hide his disdain for the WWE. “I don’t like the shit they do,” he says. Race has little patience for the laser lights and pornographic plotlines of McMahon’s big-money smackdowns. Race is old school all the way; in his league, the motto is “Shut up and wrestle!” And in a few short years, Race’s WLW has blossomed into a full-fledged breeding ground for international talent. Race has forged a working relationship with NOAH, and several of his wrestlers — Rhodes and Murphy among them — have toured Japan, making tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks.

Despite opportunities overseas, though, Race knows that household-name success for his wrestlers ultimately comes down to a shot at the WWE. That’s where the really big money and glory are today, and Race would never hold a young wrestler back from his dreams. So far, none of his guys has scored a WWE contract, but some have been called up to compete in WWE matches in Kansas City, St. Louis and, sometimes, Columbia. Essentially serving as extras, they usually make about $350. The chance to catch Vince McMahon’s eye is the true reward.

When Race was their age, scores of top-notch leagues were vying for his talents. Now it’s just the WWE, the overseas circuit, and dozens of little leagues like the WLW that do battle in front of entertainment-starved crowds in towns such as Eldon.

Thanks to Race’s networking, Derek now must grapple with the indomitable Omori. Sweaty, slightly out of breath, Derek faces the champion. Within minutes, Omori lifts Derek, turns him upside-down, grips his head between his thighs.

Omori drops to the canvas, Derek’s head still pinched between his legs — the “guillotine driver.” Derek goes limp on the mat and lies there moaning, breathing heavily.

Rhodes stares down at Derek and smirks. “He’s the champion of the world for a reason,” Rhodes says of Omori.

By midafternoon on the day of the Eldon match, Derek has fully recovered from being spiked headfirst onto a slab of thinly padded plywood. He and Gold Exchange teammate Murphy grab a late lunch at Buzzer McGee’s, a sports bar across Maple Street from WLW headquarters. In Eldon, Buzzer’s is the only cool hangout for aspiring pro wrestlers. “Unless,” Murphy says, “you like chewing tobacco and hitting on chicks with mullets.”

Murphy offers no apology for turning on Rhodes and joining the reviled Gold Exchange. “That guy’s a dick,” he says. “I hate his guts.”

It didn’t start out that way. As the first two graduates of the Harley Race Academy, Murphy and Rhodes were best friends. They roomed together, ate together, went on double dates. But envy got between them. “I just rose to the top,” Murphy says. “I don’t think he can handle being number two.”

The relationship really began to sour, Murphy says, when they spent a week in Kohoka prior to a big match. “I was dumb enough to let him come to my hometown,” Murphy scoffs. “He went to my hometown with a big chip on his shoulder, trying to be a badass to my friends. Talking about how he was better than me. He was invisible. He was just a guy standing next to Matt Murphy. By putting me down, he was hoping that he could be better than me.”

Murphy let it slide for a while. But by the time they rolled into Kohoka again, Murphy was on the disabled list. Once more, Rhodes talked trash about Murphy to his hometown friends. It was more than Murphy could bear. Although he wasn’t scheduled to return to action for another week, he stormed into the ring, turned Rhodes upside-down and smashed him against the mat in a pile-driver. Rhodes was laid up for months. “There’s a fine line between doing something that is safe and then going that extra couple of inches,” Murphy says. “I didn’t break his neck. I just did it enough to let him know that I could.”

Now Murphy is with the Gold Exchange and is the proud owner of the WLW World Tag Team Champion belt.

Tonight, Derek has an opportunity to earn a piece of that prize. Murphy’s regular tag-team partner — Superstar Steve — can’t make the match. Ordinarily, this would result in a forfeiture, but the crafty Johnny Gold claims to have signed a contract with the WLW allowing for any Gold Exchange member to defend a teammate’s title.

This is one reason Derek joined the Gold Exchange. In less than a year, Derek landed on Pro Wrestling Illustrated‘s top-500 list. WLW insiders have no doubt he’ll be the league’s rookie of the year. Derek says he gives Gold 15 percent of his earnings for the privilege of being on the championship fast track. For a local match like the one tonight, that means 15 percent of $100. (The veteran Murphy’s take is $150.) For an out-of-town match in, say, Fort Lupton, Colorado, Derek could pull in $350 plus travel expenses. And in Japan — where crowds often number in the tens of thousands — the take can be a few thousand dollars.

Yet what Derek won’t talk about is the added incentive that his contract offers Gold. “I get paid a little more when they win,” Gold says.

So Gold has obvious cause to stick his cane into the fray from time to time.

A cold autumn rain pelts the brick-and-corrugated-steel Eldon Civic Center. James Rickerson and the rest of the Crocker Bunch pour out of a gray minivan and seek shelter under the Civic Center’s brick overhang, waiting for the doors to open. The big Friday night WLW event is clearly the highlight of their week. “It gives me a chance to get out and enjoy recreation and see some of the people I’ve known for a long time, way back, wrestlers,” James says.

Margaret Tarpy, whose cookie-shaped glasses make her slightly crossed eyes look vaguely buggy, loves WLW because she’s long adored Harley Race. “I ‘member when I was a little girl,” she says. “I used to sit down and watch, with my dad, Harley Race. I always told my dad, before he passed away, I said, ‘Dad, one of these days,’ I says, ‘I’m going to meet Harley Race in person.’ And sure enough, one of my dreams came true.”

It was at a WLW match like this one — she claims to have attended “forty, maybe a hundred” — when she spotted Race in the distance and told whomever was with her, “That can’t be who I think it is.” Margaret recounts what happened next. “And he said, ‘I’m afraid it is.’ And I go….” She displays an expression of astonishment. “I just stood there. Froze right there. It was always one of my wildest dreams to meet him in person. He’s kind of a mentor. He’s one of my mentor wrestlers.”

But Margaret and James and the rest of the Crocker Bunch don’t like everything about the WLW. “I don’t like Johnny Gold,” James says.

“He’s a baldheaded geek,” says Bobby Helms. “And Matt’s a bawl baby. To tell you the truth, I think Johnny Gold needs to get suspended for using that cane.”

The doors finally open, and the members of the Crocker Bunch head to their ringside seats. James and Bobby shed their red Pulaski County Sheltered Workshop jackets to reveal matching long-sleeved Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirts. Margaret wears one, too. The ring towers over them at the center of the basketball court’s white vinyl-tile floor. It’s surrounded by folding chairs and rollaway bleachers. Gray carpet clings to the bottom half of the walls; the upper portion is covered with white sheets of wavy steel. A crowd of 400 slowly filters in.

Just before showtime, a black limousine pulls up to the Civic Center’s front door and delivers four men in their late teens and early twenties wearing stuffed-animal hoods over their heads.

James looks up and spots the characters marching into the gymnasium. “What in the Sam Hill is this?” he yells. “Ain’t it enough we have to look at Johnny Gold? Now we have to look at this?”

The four men take seats at the opposite side of the ring. They are the Fulton Animals, that city’s rowdiest WLW fans. “We love wrestling because it is a form of art,” says Kris Wyatt, the oldest of the group. “It is more theater than sport, which is fine.”

The Animals started showing up in the league’s early days, when there were more empty seats than fans. The plan was simply to get on the wrestlers’ nerves — yell at them, sing songs, stuff like that. But the plan backfired. The wrestlers liked it.

Over the years, they’ve shown up dressed in gold-lamé Elvis suits, wearing kiddy cowboy hats or, on at least one occasion, toting hobbyhorses with girlish bows on their manes. They were so pleased with that stunt that they asked Trevor Rhodes what he thought of it. “He said he hated it,” says Kris, a stocker at Fulton’s Hy-Vee. “Straight face. Hated it. We were, like, whoa! Then he came out later on [a] pay-per-view [wrestling special] with a stick horse. So we chopped off the head of a stick horse and sent it to him. You know, like in The Godfather. We even made a little serial-killer note with letters cut out of magazines that said ‘We know what you did last pay-per-view.'”

Now the WLW folks treat Kris and his buddies like their own. “B.J. said we’re kind of part of the family,” Kris says of Race’s wife. “And that meant a lot. It’s the equivalent of getting paid for doing this.”

They’ve sent Harley and his wife Christmas cards and valentines. Once, for a show in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, they stayed in the same hotel as the WLW crew and got to drink beers with Harley and the guys. “It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s stuff like that that makes it all seem worthwhile,” Kris says. “All of us think of Harley as, like, God. I’ve idolized him since I was a kid. So to get a rise out of him is worth it.”

Kris and his buddies go to work. During the all-female match between women’s champion Ms. Natural and challenger Che’ Physique, Kris and Gordon Atkins (a manager at Sonic), stand up and serenade the champ with Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” During the midget match, Kris pretends that he’s going to jump into the ring and beat up one of the puny fighters. Gordon and brothers Jeremy and Michael Harrison all leap up to restrain him. The midget puffs out his belly and points at Kris, who is not the least bit slim. That only makes Kris pretend to be more incensed. “Get in my belly!” Kris shouts.

On the other side of the ring, the Crocker Bunch gets ready for the big tag-team championship. Margaret pulls sheets of poster board out of a blue Wal-Mart bag. Each placard has a message scrawled on it in quick, angular handwriting. One reads “Harley Race we love you!” Another proclaims “WLW It Rocks!” She finds one that says “Bull baby we love you.” That’s for Bull Schmitt — a six-foot-seven-inch giant from Coffeyville, Kansas. He’s teaming up with former WWF star Ron Harris in a bid to steal the belt from the Gold Exchange.

Margaret waves the sign above her head when Schmitt pushes into the ring, his curly locks flowing halfway down his back. Then Harris joins him. Harris is just as tall as Schmitt, with a bald scalp, goatee and a spiky tattoo stretched across his bulky biceps.

And now!” the announcer yells into the microphone. “Being led to the ring by their advisor, Johnny Gold! For the tag-team title of the world! The Gold Exchange!

Wearing sparkly Elvis shades, Murphy emerges from a door at the far end of the gymnasium. Johnny Gold follows close behind in his black beret and vest, prancing through the crowd and yanking the microphone out of the announcer’s hands.

James, Billy and Margaret are all up on their feet booing and blowing raspberries. Gold stares them down through the ropes, points right at them and yells, “Just shut your face!”

He turns his attention to the rest of the crowd. “I was informed,” he shouts into the mic, “that for the simple reason Superstar Steve is in Japan touring, that we have to forfeit this match.”

James raises his fist in the air and yelps.

“But what you don’t know is,” Gold continues, “the stipulation with the Gold Exchange. We can have anybody defend the title.”

“Oh my!” Billy screams. “You go ahead and make noise, Johnny!”

“So we introduce to you … Dangerous Derek McQuinn!

Derek appears, his arms outstretched as if he’s already won. Most of the crowd — not just the Crocker Bunch — jumps up to boo him.

In moments like these, Derek says, all he can think is, I’m going to kick the hero’s ass and shut these people up.

Bobby and James stand hollering at Derek as he ascends to the ring — which apparently makes Sue Clotworthy a little nervous. “The match hasn’t even started,” she says to Bobby. “They’re gonna come down here and do something to you if you don’t be quiet.”

The bell rings, and Murphy and Bull begin circling, sizing one another up. “Come on Matt, you coward!” James barks. “Get in there!”

Bobby seizes on it. “Coward!” he shouts. “You coward! Matt’s a coward!”

Bull traps Murphy in the corner and pounds his chest.

Bobby yells a refrain: “Matt’s a crybaby! Matt’s a crybaby! Matt’s a crybaby!”

James harmonizes: “You crybaby Matt! You crybaby! Crybaby! You crybaby!”

Matt tags Derek, who jumps in and kicks Bull a few times. Bobby and James yell, “Derek’s a pea brain!” over and over.

Derek works Bull back to the corner. He steps up and hooks both feet on the first rope, trapping Bull. Towering above the long-haired giant from Kansas, Derek’s not the short guy anymore. He drives his fist into Bull’s head, delivering blow after blow — so many that the crowd begins counting in unison. Derek steps away. As Bull sags against the corner, Derek glowers at James and Bobby as if he’s going to step down from the ring and tear them apart.

Sue looks as though she might faint. “You don’t want him coming over here,” she warns Bobby.

“They’re not going to come over here,” Bobby argues. “That’s what the security guards are for.”

“There’s none over here,” Sue complains.

For the next fifteen minutes, Derek and Murphy and Harris and Bull take turns beating the hell out of one another, and the Crocker Bunch screams nonstop. At one point, Gold stares at James and mimics a mentally handicapped man, twisting his face and hooting, “Durr dee duurruuhhrrrr!

Yee! Yee! Yee! Yee! Yee! Yee! Yee! Yee!” James yells back. The entire Eldon crowd laughs.

Bobby huddles with his crew. “Next time he comes around here,” he says. “I’m gonna say, ‘Johnny, you have a brain the size of a pea!'”

“Oh no,” James says. “Watch this. I’m gonna say, ‘Are you a bunch of dumb hillbillies? Did you get a sixth-grade education?'”

Jenny and Margaret laugh uproariously. Sue can barely contain herself. “I think I’m gonna have to go to the bathroom if you keep acting crazy,” she says.

Then the action spills out of the ring. Murphy falls through the ropes, pulling Bull with him. At the same time, Derek jumps into the ring and begins pummeling Harris. The referee tries to break the two apart, turning his back on Murphy, who slams Bull’s head against the judge’s table.

For a moment, the ref has brought order to the melee, but Gold slides his cane across the mat, trying to hook Harris’ foot. Obviously pissed, Harris leaps out of the ring and chases Gold, who retreats, waving his cane like a baseball bat. Harris picks up a chair, and Gold turns and runs.

Still clutching the chair, Harris climbs back into the ring, where Bull has Murphy in a choke hold. He rears back with the chair and swings it toward Murphy’s head, but Murphy ducks and Bull takes the full brunt of the blow. He staggers around dazed for a couple of seconds — just enough time for Murphy to drill him to the ground and pin him for a three-count.

Derek races to the edge of the ring and leans over the ropes, pointing at the Crocker Bunch. “Who’s the man now?

Derek grabs the belt and hoists it above his head before strutting off to the dressing room. Bull and Harris remain in the ring, apparently arguing. Suddenly, Bull shoves his partner. In an instant, they’re in a full-on brawl. As though on cue, half a dozen WLW wrestlers burst out of the dressing room and hurdle the ropes to break up the fight.

The Crocker Bunch is stunned silent.

“Why was that?” Bobby asks, mouth agape.

Because Ron hit him!” Sue shrieks.

“But it was an accident,” Bobby says.

Bullshit!” she says, clearly enraged.

“He didn’t know he was gonn-“

Bullshit!

Sue’s anger eventually subsides to a manageable level. During intermission, she and the rest of the Crocker Bunch make their way to the concessions area, where Derek stands peddling 8-by-10 glossy photos of himself and the rest of the Gold Exchange. He wears a T-shirt emblazoned with his own design — a spiky pattern with DD in bold letters.

It took Derek almost a year to decide on the logo. He wanted to make sure it was just the right symbol, something edgy and cool enough to make him stand out among the hundreds of other wrestlers across the country vying for the big time.

Sue, Bobby and James pose for photos with Harley Race, Bull and Harris, pretending not to notice the arrogant young wrestler showing off his jeweled Tag Team Championship belt.

Finally, James breaks the silence, complaining about the “dirty” win and jabbing a finger in Derek’s direction.

Derek knows that, in spite of their hatred of him, he’ll need more fans like these in his march toward the top. Lots of them. After all, everybody wants to hate someone.

“Who’s the one with the belt?” Derek snarls. “Who’s the one with the belt?”

But he keeps his distance, too. At last year’s Eldon match, the Crocker Bunch got so mad at Derek that security guards had to pry them away. “They’re not really scary,” Derek says, explaining his caution. “But you got to watch people like that.”

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