.Mortal Combat

In the unregulated world of pro wrestling schools, the demise of Berkeley's Brian Ong probably wasn't negligent -- merely inevitable.

From across the state, young men flock to this nondescript Hayward office park, hoping to become stars. They are not actors or models yearning to break into the film business. No, these are regular guys: plumbers, morticians, and short-order cooks who share a powerful dream. They are here to learn how to have toasters smashed into their foreheads, be thrown from ladders, and hurled onto their backs. Their curriculum is about making spectators believe they are hurting someone or getting hurt, and the delicate art of working the fans into a caveman-like frenzy.

Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks.

The students at All Pro Wrestling Boot Camp, one of the nation’s premier schools for aspiring professional wrestlers, don’t seem to care whether they do the damage, or whether it is inflicted upon them — they just want to be part of pro wrestling, a blockbuster business that draws a million-plus fans to its events every year. They shell out $6,000 for APW’s nearly yearlong program and work extremely hard at it. Their professors, mostly current or former pro wrestlers, have paid their dues in the ring and bear significant scars — one has a six-inch gash, now healed, from getting hit on the head with a metal chair. Another has difficulty walking because he’s been slammed with shovels covered in barbed wire one too many times.

Sounds like a deterrent, but they flock here nonetheless. Students like Brian Ong of Berkeley, who began hearing this strange siren song as a child, and signed up for All Pro Wrestling’s training two years ago. In his e-mail application, the 27-year-old Northern California native said he was “actively working out to compensate [for a] lack of height,” which at five foot seven was hardly impressive in the professional wrestling world. “It’s been a dream of mine to have the millions chant for me, or even have them boo me,” he added in the essay section. “I like suicidal, homicidal, and genocidal aerial moves.”

That last bit was Brian’s homage to his favorite wrestler, Sabu, a man known for his extreme acrobatics and insane stunts, which earned him a broken neck and numerous other injuries. One wrestling writer described Sabu as a guy whose “body is covered in scars from wrestling in fire, on barbed wire, and putting his body through more punishment than most humans could take.”

Brian, of course, spent his days differently. He worked as a file clerk at the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, although he hoped this was only temporary until he could make his living as a wrestling star.

It was temporary, anyway. In May 2001, four months into his boot-camp training, the 185-pounder was killed in the ring, shortly after being tossed on his back by his seven-foot-three, four-hundred-pound sparring partner. The men were learning how to do a move called a “spinebuster,” but they performed it incorrectly. Ong’s head slammed into the mat and he died from a massive brain injury.

Brian’s parents, Norman and May Ong, didn’t learn of their son’s obsession until the night he died. They didn’t even know he was enrolled in the school where he’d been spending at least two nights a week for months. In legal testimony, Brian’s younger brother, Edwin, said his brother had sworn him to secrecy because he didn’t want to upset their parents. Brian, Edwin said, planned to tell them about his true career ambition when he signed his first professional wrestling contract.

The Ongs have responded by filing a wrongful-death lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court against All Pro Wrestling and its owner, Roland Alexander. The case, which is expected to go to trial later this year, claims Brian relied on All Pro to protect his well-being, and the school failed him. No one at the school, the suit alleges, made any effort to minimize the dangers, even though Brian had sustained a concussion weeks before his death practicing the same move that later killed him. The Ongs claim Brian’s instructors sent their son back into the ring despite this injury, and disregarded his safety when they paired him with a fellow wrestler known as “The Giant.”

“Prior to the Decedent’s death, Defendants, and each of them, knew or should have known that training and participation in exhibition wrestling was extremely dangerous and unsafe, including but not limited to the possibility of brain injury, injury to the nervous system, and/or fatal concussions,” the Ongs argue in their suit.

All Pro Wrestling’s Alexander denies any wrongdoing and has countered, in court papers, that this was a tragic accident in a sport that is inherently dangerous. Prior to enrolling, Alexander’s lawyers point out, Ong signed a lengthy waiver that relieves the school of any responsibility for mishaps. In essence, the lawyers argue, wrestling is risky stuff, and students who sign the liability waiver understand that. Brian’s death also happened to be the school’s only fatal accident in twelve years of doing business, Alexander says.

Although the Ongs’ lawsuit seeks to simplify the circumstances and pin responsibility for Brian’s death on the school, the factors involved are much more complex than the complaint suggests. Since childhood, the young man had idolized and desperately wanted to be part of the surreal wrestling world, which has elevated sadomasochism to the level of a spectator sport. Judging from visits to the boot camp’s training sessions, and watching as student after student jumps into the air, flips, and lands flat on his back with a terrifying thud, it’s clear no one here should expect to come out of this in full working order. And in fact, almost no one here does. “There are no guarantees in this business except that you’re going to get hurt at one point or another — how serious of an injury it will be, you don’t know,” says boot-camp student Noah Staedler, 22, a hospital file clerk from Vallejo who is studying physiology at Napa Valley College. “It’s a dangerous form of art. Very dangerous. You saw what goes on in there. It’s gonna hurt even if you land right.”

A professional wrestling event is like an athletic soap opera with blood and pyrotechnics. The stories, involving characters with names such as “The Undertaker” and “The Axe,” are about good and evil, revenge, justice, wife stealing, and getting even with the boss. But in these soaps, actors are hurled through windows, fall off of high scaffolding, or get tossed into huge speakers that crash over and spew sparks. Occasionally, the wrestlers are hauled away on stretchers as part of the show — and the fans go wild. “Touching and uplifting in a disturbing, sickening kind of way,” is how one superstar described his work on the World Wrestling Entertainment Web site.

Professional wrestling is supposed to be fake, the stories made up, and the outcomes scripted. But a convincing show also requires a good dose of reality. The wrestlers really do get hurled through windows and smashed over the head with metal garbage cans, although they are supposed to be trained to take the bumps. The blood is real, too, although sometimes wrestlers cut themselves to increase the flow and make the “suffering” look more intense. It’s brutal, compelling theater with a Howard Stern sensibility — although in this case the shock jock would have to be pumped up on steroids.

It also happens to be a damn good business. Dominated by World Wrestling Entertainment, a publicly traded company, the industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars through annual ticket sales, pay-per-view broadcasts, and merchandising. Operated by the McMahon family from its $15 million corporate headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, WWE (formerly WWF, for World Wrestling Federation) is one of the few companies in America where employees — the wrestlers — regularly get to beat up on their CEO, family patriarch and pro wrestler Vince McMahon. But pile-driving the boss doesn’t pay this well in most corporations. World Wrestling Entertainment’s performers bag six-figure salaries, and its superstars earn in the neighborhood of $1 million a year.

While lucrative for a stable of 140 wrestlers, the work is physically grueling. WWE puts on some two hundred live shows annually, which means the stars are on the road much of the year performing physically demanding, often-dangerous stunts. Eventually, that kind of schedule catches up with you. “Some of the fans like the hardcore stuff. They want to see people get hit over the head with a chair,” Roland Alexander says. “Believe it or not, that’s an art form also. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt. There’s a way you can hit somebody where it looks like you’re really hitting them, but at the same time, you’re not hurting them that bad. But over the years, you do that and you get punch-drunk.”

This weird amalgam of real and fake, plus intense lobbying by wrestling’s main man, has helped get state athletic commissions and other regulatory bodies to lay off. Up until the mid-1980s, promoters had presented their spectacle as honest sport, and wrestling was taxed and regulated, much like boxing. But in the late ’80s Vince McMahon and his wife Linda, who helps run the company, sought to reposition wrestling as entertainment. They convinced authorities in a number of states, including California, that their events need not be regulated, and their pay-per-view proceeds — unlike those of boxing — needn’t be taxed. By doing so, they were able to milk maximum profits from a growing and lucrative part of their business.

With the advent of cable TV and McMahon’s keen sensitivity to the public’s appetite for sleaze, violence, and a tough-guy script, professional wrestling took off in a spectacular way. WWE’s revenues reached $82 million a year in 1997, according to Fortune magazine, and by 2000 had soared to $379 million. Attendance at WWE events also skyrocketed, surpassing a million tickets a year by the mid-’90s.

But as the industry grew, so too did the demand for wilder and more dangerous stunts. Wrestlers began taking bigger and bigger risks to keep audiences happy. “There’s no regulation in wrestling whatsoever — not the matches, not the schools,” says Bob Barnett, an attorney and professional wrestling manager based in Southern California. “Over the last few years, these guys started getting suicidal with chairs and knives, and it’s gotten really big in Japan. Wrestlers began to make a lot of money carving up their bodies, and wrestlers are too stupid to say no.”

Barnett says the industry is plagued by steroids and rampant drug abuse — in part, he notes, because many wrestlers are in physical pain from injuries sustained in the ring. At least 75 pro wrestlers have died in the last six years, according to Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, which has documented the spectacle for more than two decades. Most of the deaths, he says, have been from drug overdoses, although a few have happened in the ring. But despite the scourge of drugs in the industry, Meltzer says, the WWE doesn’t drug-test its talent.

Serious injuries are also common. The WWE, Meltzer notes, has had nine or ten wrestlers break their necks over the last two and a half years. “It’s definitely a high-risk business and it’s gotten a lot more high-risk in recent years and I don’t know how to change that,” he says.

WWE officials don’t deny the casualties. “There have been serious neck injuries in the WWE, and we work very hard as a group to ensure the safety of the performers in the ring,” says company spokesman Gary Davis. “Our superstars are trained professionals and go into the ring with very good knowledge of what they are supposed to do with their partner in order to conduct a safe match, but accidents do happen despite your best efforts.”

Barnett, for one, is dubious that government regulators could do anything to rein in the gung-ho wrestlers, who do nearly anything they can to please the crowd — even make themselves very, very bloody. “They put a piece of tape around their finger with a piece of razor blade and cut their foreheads. They drink a lot of whiskey and take aspirin before a show because that thins their blood out and makes them bleed a lot,” says Barnett, who calls Vince McMahon “one of the biggest bleeders in the country.”

Even though it’s his chosen industry, Barnett seems to have little regard for wrestling. “It’s the sickest business I’ve ever seen, from top to the bottom, from the bleeding to the injuries,” he says. “There’s nobody in the business who’s even remotely normal.”

Almost everybody involved in wrestling knows it’s not for everyone. Brian Ong understood this from an early age. In his legal testimony, Edwin Ong said he and his brother would watch pro wrestling on TV as young kids growing up in Walnut Creek. Their parents couldn’t understand its allure. May Ong, who is Chinese American, would ask in her strong accent, “‘Why you watch that stupid thing?'” Edwin recalled. As Brian got older, Edwin said, he began keeping his deep interest in wrestling to himself. “He did not want to worry my parents,” the younger Ong said. Brian’s parents declined to be interviewed for this story.

By all accounts, Brian was an eager student. Vince Principato, one of All Pro’s trainers, described him as a boot-camp enlistee who was damned happy to be there. “He had a fantastic attitude,” Principato said in sworn testimony. “One thing I remember about Brian is every time he took the School Boy [move], he would run and shout like he was happy to take a bump. Nobody did that. He was always there. He was excited about everything he did.”

Although details of Brian’s first wrestling injury are sketchy, court testimony shows that he sustained a concussion a few weeks into his training, which began in February 2001, while practicing a spinebuster. In the move, one of the wrestlers holds the other one upside down by his shins, so that the guy being tossed has his stomach against his opponent’s back. The lead wrestler then pitches his rival over his shoulders and onto the mat. Done properly, it should look like a violent throw, when in fact the lead wrestler is supposed to guide his victim down so that he lands flat on his back, distributing the impact. A few weeks into his training, Ong tried the move and hit his head. He missed the next two classes in order to recover and then continued to train.

According to the lawsuit, the boot-camp trainers “knew or should have known” that the concussion put Ong at risk for more serious injuries. No disagreement from Jim Brambilla, who writes an online wrestling column from his New Jersey home. “He should have been taking care of his concussion,” he says. “As soon as Brian had a concussion, he should have sat on the side and not taken any bumps.”

The night of May 28, students practiced at the gym, which sits in a large converted warehouse in a drab Hayward office building. Brian sparred with various people, including Dalip Singh, a freakishly huge Indian guy who also dreamed of being a pro wrestler and had attended the boot camp a few months longer than Brian. Singh, also 27, was so big you could have watched a movie projected onto his back. He had biceps the size of the average man’s thighs, and a chest like a redwood trunk.

Despite his mammoth stature, Singh was reportedly a sweet, gentle man who spoke little English. According to various accounts of that night, Singh wanted to practice the spinebuster and was paired with Brian. The first time the two tried it, Ong grabbed Singh’s shirt as he was tossed over the giant’s shoulders. Principato explained to Brian that he needed to push off his opponent’s back as he was tossed. Singh then did the move with two others in the gym that night, including one of the trainers, so Ong could see how it was done.

On the second attempt, Brian grabbed Singh’s shirt again. This time, his tailbone hit first, and his head whipped back violently against the mat. He didn’t get up. Instead, he turned over, said he was dizzy, and began to moan. “Nobody thought, ‘Oh, this guy is in really bad shape,'” Principato remembered.

Before long, however, it was clear he was indeed in bad shape. Brian tried to crawl out of the ring but managed only to get up on all fours, vomit, and then collapse. Someone at the gym called 911 and paramedics carted the unconscious wrestler off to St. Rose Hospital in Hayward, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The Alameda County Coroner’s Office later listed the official cause of death as acute and subdural hemorrhage due to head trauma.

There’s no doubt what happened was tragic, but was the school negligent? The Ong family clearly believes it was, but some wrestling insiders who know the business and how training schools around the country operate don’t think so. They say Brian’s death was an unfortunate accident at one of the best-run of the bunch. “APW is in the top echelon of wrestling schools. It is one of the most famous, successful schools,” Wrestling Observer‘s Meltzer says. “They’ve sent a lot of guys to the major leagues, and they’re a lot better-trained than the guys who come out of most schools.”

There are dozens of wrestling schools across the country, and when you sign up for any of them, you are warned what you could be in for, says Mike Lano, a boxing and wrestling writer since 1966 who lives in the Bay Area. “I’ve examined schools around the world, and APW is one of the best,” he says. “It’s in the top 10 percent of schools. APW exceeds most schools in terms of safety, cleanliness, and experience of trainers.”

Meltzer describes the spinebuster as a basic move that isn’t considered especially high-risk. Nor does he consider Ong’s pairing with such a huge opponent unusual, although Singh, he acknowledges, is a giant even by WWE standards. The editor notes that there have been occasional deaths and serious injuries at other wrestling schools over the last several years, although neither he nor anyone else, apparently, has kept statistics on these rare events. “Wrestling is dangerous,” Meltzer says, “but it’s more dangerous to be a wrestler than to go to wrestling schools. Professional wrestlers die from the tolls of the business, and maybe one or two pros die in the ring each year.”

That, says Nancy Hersh, the Ongs’ San Francisco attorney, is something the government should be addressing. The Ongs’ case, she says, deals with an unregulated industry that’s in a position to exploit people financially, physically, and psychologically. “We’re hoping that as a result of this litigation, we initiate some form of regulation and try to encourage people who run businesses like this to initiate safety measures and take care of the people who pay them,” she says. “If these people had given any thought to the safety of Brian and others, this never would have happened. It’s unfortunate that we live in a society that requires an impulse from outside in order to initiate measures to protect their consumers.”

Hersh wouldn’t address the details of her clients’ case or its chances of success, but hand-wringing about the need to regulate pro wrestling won’t help her in court. If the Ong case makes it to trial, Brian’s parents will face serious legal hurdles. The first of these is the liability release he signed before he began training at All Pro Wrestling. Second, and probably more ominous for the plaintiffs, is a ruling by the California Supreme Court last August that puts a major headlock on anyone who sues over accidents incurred during sports instruction. “Legally, I’d say they have an uphill fight,” says Stephen Barnett, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School. “It’s because the courts apply a concept of assumption of risk in these cases. If you agree to engage in a sport like wrestling, you are generally held to assume the risk at least in terms of negligence, and you can’t sue for mere negligence. It has to be something more than negligence, like recklessness.”

The precedent-setting case was Olivia Kahn v. East Side Union High School District, in which a fourteen-year-old San Jose girl sued her school district’s swim coach after he allegedly failed to teach her how to safely dive into a shallow racing pool. During a school swim meet, the young girl executed a practice shallow dive and broke her neck. The high court determined that, while sports instructors “owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others,” some sports are “inherently dangerous” and any attempt to mitigate the risks could alter the activity itself and “inhibit vigorous participation.”

The justices also noted that “a significant part of an instructor’s or coach’s role is to challenge or ‘push’ a student or athlete to advance in his or her skill level,” and that fulfillment of this role would be “improperly chilled by too stringent a standard of potential legal liability.” Any plaintiff bringing such a case, the court concluded, would have to prove the instructor actually intended to harm his student, or that the injury occurred as a result of action “totally outside the range of the ordinary activity.”

Which begs the question: What’s out of the ordinary in pro wrestling?

On a Saturday night in November, the headquarters of All Pro Wrestling is abuzz with activity. This is show time, one of the school’s periodic wrestling events in which students get a chance to strut their stuff for a crowd. At least seventy people are jammed into folding chairs all around the ring — the front row is set back several feet, naturally, to make room for wrestlers who get thrown over the ropes.

As a warm-up, the audience is treated to a videotaped match featuring Crash Holly, one of the school’s most successful graduates, who wrestled for the WWE but died just a week or so before tonight’s event, reportedly of a drug overdose. In the movie, Holly, whose real name was Mike Lockwood, battles his opponent outside at night. They throw each other onto cars and then take turns chasing one another with the vehicles. They get hit with open car doors and run down. The audience goes wild.

Outside the auditorium, men run around in spandex pants, masks, and muscle shirts. They are excited to perform, giddy and nervous as children before a school holiday pageant. As the main event approaches, lead trainer Robert Thompson calls all twenty or so wrestlers outside and urges them to “give the audience something they haven’t seen before.” The men all nod silently. They are ready to deliver on that solemn promise.

Nearly all of these guys desperately want to break into WWE. Few ever will, but they are determined to give it their best shot. In the meantime, one works as a plumber, another repairs video games, a third is a full-time college student studying to be an English teacher, while a fourth sells antacids and nicotine gum. But right here at the gym, during a match, is where they feel their lives are as they should be. “I just want to wrestle in the ring in front of a crowd,” says Ruben Garcia, a new student at the school. “I will be doing this as long as I’m walking.”

One of the school’s instructors, a former pro, says wrestling is a career for those who simply can’t stomach the idea of a boring day job. “Seventy-three percent of Americans are unhappy with their jobs. I may be busted up and can’t walk and am in a bad situation, but I chased my dream. I went as far as I could,” says Steve Rizzono, 35, a cardio trainer at the gym who tonight will be playing the role of a Mafia don who screams fake Italian at his wrestler buddy.

Rizzono resembles a grown-up Eddie Munster with a nose that’s been broken so many times it looks as if the letter Z has been stuck on his face. He’s a sweet, soft-spoken man, in dramatic contrast to his former ring persona. The trainer spent the last few years wrestling for the now-defunct XPW league, an extreme wrestling outfit based in Los Angeles. Because the league was so outrageous, paramedics stood by the ring in case of disaster.

Rizzono’s specialty was wrestling on broken glass, in rings with barbed-wire ropes, and — the coup de grâce — with metal shovels. But even then there were surprises — such as the match where he had a sword jammed into his skull and required numerous stitches. The man has suffered some twenty concussions. One friend says Rizzono is permanently punch-drunk and often has trouble keeping his thoughts on track because of the repeated head injuries he has endured.

None of this is obvious when a reporter speaks with him. Rizzono answers questions articulately and directly, but he does have several cracks in his spine — three disks are damaged — and finds standing and walking difficult. To keep ahead of the intense pain, Rizzono says he takes morphine, Xanax, and codeine. “Sometimes I have to take so much medication, I’m incoherent,” he says.

But this evening he is eager to be a part of the show. “Some people call it the wrestling sickness, and I have it bad,” the trainer says. “It’s just that you do whatever you can to please a crowd, whether it’s barbed wire or a headlock. I did wrestle every match like it was my last. If I made one person in the audience pop and say, ‘That guy was amazing,’ it made me as happy as I could be.”

Rizzono’s girlfriend of two years, Joanne Alesi, is with him this night, as she always is at his matches and wrestling events. A petite blonde divorcée who works as a supervisor at a high-tech medical device firm in Richmond, Alesi supports her boyfriend but doesn’t try to understand his world, because she simply can’t. “He’s a nice, big-hearted person who wouldn’t hurt a fly, so why does he want to get hit in the head with all this stuff?” she asks.

The same question could be asked of almost every guy competing in the match. In interviews, they are polite, deferential, and honest. They know they cannot adequately explain their love of wrestling, but they try. Each and every one talks about the thrill of stirring up the crowd and being the center of attention. Each match is a bout with glory.

“You want to give the crowd something to remember. That’s what it’s about for me,” says Garcia, a 22-year-old mechanic who works in a Fremont bowling alley and who, after a couple of weeks at All Pro, already sports a chipped tooth and sore back.

Tonight, he and the other green students are yelled at and humiliated onstage by trainer Thompson, who enters the makeshift arena to a booming rap song, its lyrics — “Real man! Real man!” — chanted by the audience as he storms into the ring. Inside the ropes, Thompson puts the students in a line and berates them like a drill sergeant hazing his recruits. He calls their outfits “stupid” and screams at one fledgling, “If you ever miss a session again, I am going to smack the hell out of you!” People boo and yell at him and he shouts into his microphone, “Shut the hell up before I come out there and kick your ass!”

An intriguing opening act, for sure, and what follows is just as bizarrely compelling. The wrestlers grunt and bleed as they are thrown around. They sweat as they hit each other with surfboards and tumble out of the ring onto the concrete floor below.

Roland Alexander watches the evening unfold with pride. “I know I am keeping kids that come through that door off the streets, and they’re not involved with drugs or gangs. I am doing good things for them,” he says without a hint of irony.

Alexander believed he was doing the same for Brian Ong. Now he just has to convince the court.


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