In the third installment of our exclusive look at the life of grappling legend Booker T, the entertainer opens up about his efforts to save at-risk youth — by tossing them into the ring to become wrestlers.
I was getting scammed and I knew it.
I didn’t come from a wrestling family. My brother got into it more or less at the same time I did, so there was no uncle or father to push me in front of a promoter and tell them I could draw money. I had to prove it myself. And cold-calling people isn’t going to do it. Getting slammed on your ass is your audition.
So I signed up for a school — a crash course for pro wrestlers. It was $3,000 for eight weeks. Believe me when I tell you, you cannot learn how to wrestle in eight weeks. It’s impossible. I did it because it was a foot into the business, but I knew it was a scam and didn’t like it. I thought, “Shit, kids coming up can’t think this is the only way to do it.”
This was the late ’80s, though, and maybe it was the only way. But by the time I got my boots on in the WCW in the ’90s, I started thinking about what I could do back in Houston to help mentor the next generation of wrestlers. The goal wasn’t just to get them ready for the ring — it was to get them ready for life. To take kids and show them that the path I had gone down as a teenager only ended one way: jail if you’re lucky, dead if you’re not.
Booker T in his old neighborhood connecting with kids. Photo by Cody Bess Photography.
The goal wasn’t just to get them ready for the ring — it was to get them ready for life.
It took me 10 years, but I did it. With my brother, I opened a pro wrestling academy in 2005. I wanted to help disadvantaged youth. The problem with that is it’s pretty damn hard to do when you’re the one at a disadvantage.
I never met Paul Boesch, but that’s who comes to mind when anyone asks about my inspiration for opening a school. You probably don’t know the name — not even a lot of hard-core wrestling fans do. Paul was a wrestler and promoter in the Houston area, but that’s not why people around here remember him.
All you need to know is that promoters in the wrestling business aren’t usually looked upon with fondness. It’s a tough business. But everyone loved Paul. You would never hear a wrestler or anyone say a bad word about him. He did a lot of charity work for the kids in the area — just did a lot for them, period. One of his sayings made its way around, and it had to do with his boxing program for juveniles: “If a kid has a glove on, he can’t pick up a knife or a gun.” That’s who Paul was. He knew that to keep a kid out of trouble, you had to keep him busy.
I watched his wrestling show every weekend on Channel 39. I looked up to him. And when I got older, I thought I could help keep that tradition alive. I loved working with kids, so it seemed like a natural fit.
Some wrestlers open schools after retirement, but that wouldn’t be my move. I wanted the school to be active while I was still active and hopefully let it build to something I could focus on after my career was over. I talked it over with my brother and we decided to rent some warehouse space for $3,000 a month. It was 15,000 square feet and it had everything: a track, four rings, all the equipment.
We called it Booker T and Stevie Ray’s Pro Wrestling Academy, or PWA. That might have been the first mistake.
I love my brother, and we’ve since repaired our relationship, but we had very different visions for this school. Stevie wanted to recruit guys who’d been around for years, all the same faces you’d seen on undercards. I wanted to mold fresh talent and use it as a vehicle for reaching kids who might be getting themselves into some stupid shit otherwise.
We fought. He walked.
My wife, Sharmell, and I made the decision to keep the school going, although she needed some convincing — a lot of convincing. We had our grand opening. I’d love to say, “The rest is history,” but the rest is a bunch of trial and tribulation. We’d sunk a ton of money into the place and there simply weren’t enough students coming in the door to justify the cost. I didn’t want to get into loans, so everything was out of pocket. And kept coming out of pocket. Nothing was going in the pocket.
I lost money like crazy. There was a stock market crash around this time, too, so everything that could go wrong went wrong. There wasn’t enough tuition coming in to pay the warehouse rent, which gave us all the great privilege of freezing in the winter and roasting in the summer.
Finally, we downgraded from that space to a place with 5,000 square feet. It was more practical, the rent was cheaper, and it could fit all the students I wasn’t bringing in. I was weeding out the marks who wanted to come in and play at wrestling. I had a fantasy camp for that. Those guys were not who the school was for, but it’s who kept showing up.
Still, I was determined to follow Paul Boesch’s lead. He laid out the blueprint. I just had to follow it.
From the start, I knew the school could fill a need. I was getting kids as young as 16 coming in. Most of them were from pretty troubled backgrounds. They were looking for an escape. They wanted to create something. I’ve had gang members come from Los Angeles. I’ve had kids from trailer parks. It’s not an island of misfit toys, but it might be a place where you can come to fit in when you don’t fit in anywhere else.
One student got here when he was 16. He’s 20 now. You need to be 21 to try out for the WWE, so he’s right on the edge. He’s got a real shot. And he almost messed it up.
He was a street kid with no dad. Right after he came to my school, I had a cop friend come in and show me his picture.
“You know him?” the cop asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
It was just a photo of the kid smoking weed — a little trouble. But it always starts as just a little trouble. I told this kid, “You can do this, or you can go and do that. But don’t think you can do both and no one is going to find out.”
All of them get the speech. This isn’t a place to jump around like it’s recess. This isn’t a place to cop an attitude. If you have a problem with someone, I have boxing gloves you can put on to sort your business out. This is about the psychology of wrestling, about creating characters and understanding the motivation behind the moves. If I don’t think it’s for them, I will flat out talk them out of it. I once had a kid who had a college scholarship lined up. This school can wait. That education can’t.
If you have a problem with someone, I have boxing gloves you can put on to sort your business out.
Like any place of higher learning, there’s tuition — about four grand. Three grand bought me two months of training back in the day. Four grand can buy two years here, which you’ll need, because this shit is hard. And it’s complicated. And it’s not what people expect. I tell them to bring a pencil and notebook. It’s that kind of place.
What that money can’t buy is some kind of golden pass to the WWE. I let everyone know that right off the bat, too. “There are thousands of guys just like you trying to make it in this business,” I’ll tell them. “Only a few are going to make it. The only luck you have is your preparation.”
That money doesn’t guarantee you’ll make my show, either. I have a promotion in the area, Reality of Wrestling, which is what I changed the name of the school to in 2012. It’s almost all homegrown talent, and you’d better believe everyone has to work their ass off for every spot. You get good enough to make it on my show, you might have half a chance at the big time. Half a chance. That’s as much as I promise.
And those early shows? That was some Laurel & Hardy shit. It was like a bad ’60s karate movie. I’d spent decades in the business, but I didn’t know anything about the production side of it. Cameras, timing, lighting, everything — there were a hundred different wrinkles to work out. But I did it because the only way to groom talent is to have talent to teach them. Since I didn’t want ex-wrestlers coming in, I needed guys who could get good enough to work in the ring.
We got better and better with it and eventually got footage good enough to show Channel 39, which gave us a Saturday time slot. Part of it was the name change — there were dozens of Pro Wrestling Academies around the country, and we needed a brand. Reality of Wrestling fit. It’s a little bit of a contradiction, but that’s what the school is about: the real side of this theater.
That’s what the school is about: the real side of this theater.
I had the name. I had the students. But the show itself was digging me into a hole. In 2013, I was putting together a card I was calling “Christmas Chaos.” No one but my wife and I knew it was going to be ROW’s last show.
About five years prior, I had invited a local businessman named Hilton Koch to a show to check it out and see if he’d like to sponsor it. Koch is a good man, but he’s also a businessman — he took one look at the 100 or so people in the crowd and shook his head. I understood it.
“Christmas Chaos” was going to be it. The school would be fine, but I just couldn’t sustain the expense of putting on shows that lost money. I was inside the building that night when I got a call. It was from Koch.
“I’m outside,” he said.
“Well, come on in.”
“I can’t. The line is way down the block.”
Perseverance. It took a long time, but the word had gotten out that, while ROW may be a triple-A-league show, it was a damn good one. Koch sat with the rest of the sold-out house that night and we made a sponsorship deal. I sometimes appear in his furniture commercials. He sponsors the live show every month, and his name helped get us other sponsors. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. The sky is opening up for us, blue as can be.
Two years after ROW gained momentum, I wrestled one last match with my brother, Stevie Ray. We started in the business together as Harlem Heat, and I wanted to finish it the same way. The differences we had over the school were dead and buried.
I wanted to be leading by example. I worked for Vince McMahon for years, and he did the same thing. You want to know your boss can do the same thing he’s asking you to do.
People drove from all over to see it. It was a fantastic night.
I consider the school and my students a family. They know they can come and talk to me about their problems. We do a lot of charity work together. That’s what I always wanted to build — not some eight-week cash grab, but something that will last. These guys might be carrying me at my funeral one day.
Paul Boesch had a piece of jewelry that he wore. It’s a big diamond ring that has wrestlers and an old microphone and a camera on the sides. I wear it to honor his memory. I don’t think the last 11 years have happened by accident. I like to think he’s looking down and guiding me in the right direction. Me and the kids both.
Don’t miss the rest of our exclusive series with Booker T:
Part 1: The Newborn Identity of Booker T