Sunday, April 19, 2009
Mat Rats: Getting Mom and Dad's Permission Was Only HALF the Job
What you are about to read is the result of years and years of my time, effort, tears and parents money. I decided to forgo college, a social life and a career so that I could one day bring to you the untold story of a truly revolutionary movement in professional wrestling. This is a written retrospective about things that should have been.
A decade ago a wrestling promotion dared to make its youngest viewers dream. They encouraged them to emulate their heroes. They told the children watching their show that they SHOULD try this at home. That promotion was Mat Rats, the result of the collective genius of Eric Bischoff and his B.F.F. Jason Hervey. Mat Rats was not all that different from their contemporaries at the time. They ran house shows. They had a weekly televised show. They even nearly managed to break into the lucrative pay per view market. They even managed to raise the ire of their main adversary: Vincent Kennedy McMahon. What set Mat Rats apart from the rest was the fact that their warriors were mere children. This was not your father's pro wrestling. It wasn't even your older cousin's pro wrestling. This was pro wrestling in it's simplest form. Eric Bischoff had a goal, and Mat Rats was going to be the vessel by which he achieved it.
Eric Bischoff had been to the top of the mountain. He had drank from the golden chalice. He had done something no one else ever had: He put Vince McMahon on the defensive. Then it all fell apart. "I had recently lost out on my chance to purchase WCW," Bisch says as he nurses a glass of Crown Royal on the rocks. "You have to understand something. I had literally gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Penthouse to shit house. Riches to rags. Any analogy you can think of. I remember sitting in a hotel room one night with Herv (Jason Hervey) and we're both pretty down. I mean, our dream had just fizzled right in front of our eyes. I'll be perfectly honest with you, I was suicidal. I had this vision, this dream, and it was dead." The funny thing about dreams is that they don't always end when we think they do. "So, like I said, I was drinking with Jason, and we are both REALLY shit faced. He kept going on and on about how we needed to find out what was going to be the future of wrestling and we had to control it. Over and over, all night long. Finally I had heard enough and was about to slap the piss out of him when it clicked. My head popped up and I said 'I got it!' Herv just sat there, looking dumb. Then I said 'The best way to control the future of wrestling is to control the future OF the future of wrestling!' Herv was lost at this point so I spelled it out for him. We were going to start another wrestling promotion, and we were going to use CHILDREN as the performers. At this point Jason had gone into the other room to watch a stripper going down on my wife, so I grabbed a pen and paper and went to work." And work he did. For the next two weeks Bischoff worked the phones, lining up agents, sponsors, venues and such. A grass roots effort by his family and friends working as the Mat Rats street team helped spread the word about this new promotion by passing out fliers at local Chuck E. Cheese's, Toys 'R Us, and skate parks. Bischoff had lined up nearly everything except the one thing that mattered: He still needed wrestlers. Enter Pat Patterson.
"When I heard that Eric was starting out on his own again I laughed a good one," Patterson recalls in his heavy French Canadian accent. "Then I heard he was building this promotion on kids. 10 minutes later I handed Vince McMahon my letter of resignation. I wasn't the only one. Terry Garvin left with me. Jerry Lawler too. Chris Kanyon, Ricky Morton and Raven signed on as agents." Patterson had a seemingly unnatural desire to see Mat Rats blossom to maturity. He poured every inch of his being into getting things off the ground. "I took out some TV ads down in Orlando. I turned my house into Uncle Pat's Dojo. If you had a desire to become a pro wrestler, a permission slip signed by your parents and $3,000 you could live in my house and I would teach you the ways of the mat. Our first class consisted of only one applicant, but by God, he was the best wrestler I would ever train." That wrestler's name was Jack Evans.
HOOD RATS TO MAT RATS TO RING RATS
Jack Evans is a man conflicted. As I interviewed him I could tell he had a certain uneasiness about him. He sat in his seat in a Tijuana gutter bar, smoking a joint as he looked up to the ceiling. The product of a broken home, Jack walked the streets during his formative years. "When I was a little boy my momma used to tell me some crazy things. She told me that my father was an evil man. She told me that he hated me. Once I got a little bit older I realized that she was the crazy one. There was nothing I could say or do that could change that, cuz that's just the way she was." Jack doesn't like to talk about his youth, and yet here he is, spilling his guts to the IWC's foremost reporter. He is a man on the run. On the run from his past. On the run from the law. And in some regards, on the run from the truth. "I fucked up, man. I fucked up big time." Jack doesn't live in Mexico because he likes it. He lives here because for the next 3 and a half years he isn't welcome in his native U.S. but we'll get to that soon enough. "I had no supervision when I was a kid. My mom would be out gettin' her fuck on with some shit head. I used to stay out till like 3AM on school nights. My mom didn't give a shit. As long as I locked the door when I left, she didn't care where I was. I never had to answer for anything I ever did." This lack of accountability would become the theme of his life. Spare the rod, spoil the child. "I was part of a street gang. We were hardcore for our age. Sticking up white boys for Starter jackets on basketball courts. We were the gang to be with. Then I started slinging weed. It was the best thing ever. I made so much cheddar that I dropped out in 7th grade. I was 12 years old with a $50,000 car. I was the shit." This is where the timeline gets hazy. Jack doesn't have any more tales about his street days or how his drug dealing days came to an end. "One night I was watching TV and I saw a commercial spot for Uncle Pat's Dojo. I had a trampoline and a pool with a diving board, so I figured I'd give this wrestling shit a shot. I called the toll free number and three days later the application showed up in the mail. I forged my mom's signature and I was on my way to Florida."
"I remember seeing him walk out of the jet way and I'm thinking 'This is it? This is the guy I'm supposed to teach how to wrestle?' He was like 5'6 and maybe 130 lbs. I like them to be a little bigger than that. But Jack Evans would soon teach me that size doesn't matter." Patterson is practically beaming about his prize student, all these years later. "But from the moment I met Jack we connected. He was this soft, supple lump of clay that I was going to mold with my calloused hands. He had a genuine thirst for this business, and I was going to use every inch of my 4 decades in this business to quench that thirst."
Eric Bischoff wasn't very impressed with Jack, either. "I didn't think very much of Jack Evans when I first saw him. He wasn't very big. He didn't have an amateur background. He wasn't even a wrestling fan. He was this kid who had the money and desire to be a star. I even told him I was going to give him his money back and get him on a flight back home. That's when Pat stepped in."
"I told Eric 'If the boy is going to fail, let him fail. If you send him home now he learns nothing'. Eric said 'Pat, you watch him like a hawk. I don't want him to so much as shit without you knowing about it'. So he moved into the dojo, and the rest is history." Well, sort of. What happens over the course of this story is very much "history", but this is the first time much of it has made it itself known to the masses. "So I trained Jack in the arts of mat wrestling and submission grappling. More than that, I taught him how to be a man and how to deal with unspeakable pain." Evans was a quick study. Within weeks it was obvious that he was going to be something big. But one wrestler, no matter how great, can not carry a wrestling promotion alone.
A PAIR OF HARTS
"We needed more wrestlers, to put it bluntly. Pat had spent so much time teaching Jack the ropes that he had neglected to bring in anyone else. So we decided to start up Uncle Pat's Wrestling Camp. For $1500 parents could send their boys to live at Uncle Pat's Dojo for the summer and learn the wrestling trade. It was a tremendous deal. The applications were pouring in. It got to the point where we had to literally had to start turning kids away, much to Pat's dismay. Pat has such a passion for teaching young kids about wrestling and about life in general that it literally tore him up to tell kids that there was no more room at the inn."
"We had them sleeping on the floors, sleeping on cots. I had to build a bunkhouse just to make more room. It got to the point where some of them were sleeping in my room with me! Nothing but young boys as far as the eye could see. It was tremendous," Patterson says with a laugh. News of Uncle Pat's Dojo quickly spread among the wrestling community. Soon two young men with famous relatives in professional wrestling would make their way down to Florida. Teddy Hart and Harry Smith were the next generation of the Hart family legacy, and they weren't content to wait for adulthood to become pro wrestlers. They arrived in Florida and met Jack Evans. The wrestling world would never be the same.
"Harry and Teddy were fucking crazy. Fucking crazy." In Hart and Smith, Jack had finally met his running mates. The three formed a core and became fast friends. "The one thing I have learned about wrestling is that you need friends. Harry and Ted were... are my best friends. I could just look at them and know what they were thinking. They were crazy mother fuckers." Smith is currently under WWE contract and could not be reached for comment. Teddy Hart is currently bound by a gag order from commenting. "The worst thing about being the best at what you do is that there is always someone looking to shit in your Cheerios, literally and figuratively. Ted and Harry had my back."
By now Mat Rats had nearly two dozen young men under contract. Now all they had to do was run a show. The Lionel Tate story was still fresh in the minds of many Floridians, so pro wrestling wasn't received very warmly. Pro wrestling with children was down right taboo.
"We had some definite hurdles to clear before we could run our first event. The community in general was not too keen on the concept of our product. We did all the local TV and radio talk shows to try and quell peoples fears, but seeing is believing. We needed to run a show to prove everyone wrong."
Enter local business man Luigi Barnello. Luigi owned several "Discovery Zone" indoor playgrounds through out Florida. When he heard that there was a pro wrestling company featuring kids looking for a venue he stepped up first to offer his.
"I was a big fan of the wrestling. I hear about this idea and I figure 'Yeah, sure, this could work'. My poppa used to take me to the wrestling when I was a kid, so maybe this could be the next big thing, you know?"
They had the backstage crew. They had the roster. They had the venue. Now all they needed were characters. This presented to be a much larger problem than anticipated.
"The one thing you have to keep in mind is that Mat Rats was sports entertainment performed by children and was being marketed directly at children," explains Bischoff. "That somewhat limits what you can get away with in terms of story lines and gimmicks and all that. The P.T.C. is always one tasteless gimmick or angle away from making our lives complete shit. We had a very fine line to walk, and I think for the most part we did just fine. Were they the best gimmicks ever? No. Where the worst ever? No. They were OK." Not everyone shares his point of view.
"Those gimmicks in the early going were complete shit. A fucking embarrassment," scoffs Pat Patterson. "They made some of the shit Vince was doing at the time look brilliant by comparison." He is not alone.
"When we first got rolling the story lines and gimmicks were fucking stupid," recalls Evans. "I told Eric that to his face. I walked in there for the first show and he hands me a fucking monkey mask and says 'Here ya go! You're going to be SPOT THE MONKEY!' I was like 'You fucking with me?' Dude was dead ass serious. For the first couple of months we were in business I was Spot the fucking Monkey. I hated myself and wanted to die."
Bischoff still claims that while the ideas did not work, they were founded on firm logic. "The biggest mistake I ever made in WCW was unmasking the luchadors. A high flying guy with a mask and a secret identity, they were like super heroes. I could have sold tons of those masks. I am smart enought to see where I failed in the past and learn from those failures. Mat Rats needed to move a ton of merchandise to work. Our margin for error was razor thin. We needed a breakout star. We needed that guy who could move t-shirts and masks and posters. Jack was our best worker, but he just was so bland and vanilla. I figured if we put him under a mask it would hide his negatives while accentuating his positives. We needed Jack Evans to be Spot the Monkey."
The first show was performed in front of 30 people, nearly all of whom were family or friends of the performers. Before the show Bischoff could feel the tension in the air and see it on the faces of the kids. He called the troops together for a pre show pep talk.
"I basically laid everything out for them in simple terms. We were about to take a huge risk. We were setting foot on Vince McMahon's playground and that he would likely not take too kindly to it. This was going to ultimately lead to war. I then told them that I believed in them and I knew they had the will to succeed." Evans remembers things differently.
"5 minutes before the first match Eric has us all backstage and he starts crying and shit. Crying like a bitch. He was going on and on about how he had sank every last dime he had into Mat Rats and that we had to make this work or else he would hunt us down and kill us. For reals. He showed us the knife."
The first show, lightly attended as it was, went off without a hitch. The under card was solid, and Teddy Hart and Spot the Monkey tore the house down with a 60 minute Broadway in the main event. While the debut show was not a financial success it was something to build on.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
The first 6 months saw Mat Rats grow from a fledgling company with no fan base to a well promoted regional promotion whose fan base was growing by the day. Running shows at Discovery Zones around Florida was a great deal for the promotion. Luigi Barnello did all the advertising for the shows and received 15% of the gate as a way of reimbursement.
"It was a great deal. I wasn't going to get rich off of these shows, but it gave the kids something to do, you know? Keep 'em off of the drugs and whatnot. I just got a kick out of watching them have fun. It was a good thing. We were all happy doing the DZ house shows 3 or 4 times a week. We never wanted to get a TV deal. But one day a guy came up to me and made me an offer I couldn't refuse." That man was local TV sports caster Chance Morgan.
"I discovered Mat Rats on accident. I was taking my kid to Discovery Zone for my weekend visitation and we walked in and there was all this commotion going on. Kids were in a wrestling ring, flying around. It was amazing. I had never seen anything like it before. The station I was working at was looking for something new to air on Saturday mornings after cartoons were over. I tracked down the owner of the venue and told him I would be willing to bankroll their production costs if they could give me 1 hour of fresh, live TV each week to air on my station. We were in business." Just like that, Mat Rats After School Special was born. Bischoff's plan was working out faster than he could have ever imagined.
"Not even a year in and we're already on TV. Things could have not been any better. No way. Then I get a phone call from the owner of the TV station. He loved the show so much that he wanted to move it Mondays after school. This was the dream time slot for us. We couldn't compete with the WWE head to head. For one, Monday is a school night. Most of our audience would be in bed before the show aired. Prime time was a no-go for us. The after school time slot, that was like our Holy Grail. It was the Cadillac of time slots for a kid centric show. Now we had that time slot in our home market. All we needed was for the surrounding markets to do the same thing. Syndication was the only way we could compete." Not everything was going well. Jack Evans had grown so weary of being Spot the Monkey that he was acting up backstage. Finally, after no-showing an autograph signing, Bischoff gave in. "I had finally had as much of Jack's bullshit that I could handle. He didn't want to be Spot the Monkey anymore. He thought the gimmick was lame and outdated. I thought he was doing just fine but Jack felt otherwise. So after months and months of him acting like an idiot I finally said 'FINE, YOU DON'T WANT TO BE THE MONKEY? COME UP WITH YOUR OWN FUCKING GIMMICK'. He handed me a video tape of an Eminem video and said 'I want to do this. I want to be a fly ass white dude'. I had no clue what that meant, but at that moment I was so sick of Jack that I gave him what he wanted. It was the best decision I ever made."
MAT RATS COMES OF AGE
The fans were coming to the shows. They were watching the shows. They were buying the merchandise. Things were going great, but the fans were becoming more and more demanding. The WWE was flying high with it's combination of scantily clad women and potty humor. Bischoff was growing more and more anxious with each step Mat Rats took and wanted to speed things up. "I was pleased with the shows, but I wanted more. I wanted to beat Vince McMahon at his own game. In order to do that we needed story lines that our fans could connect with. We did an angle where one of our wrestlers mommy and daddy got divorced. We did an angle where one of the kids was grounded for not doing his homework. These were good story lines, but if we wanted Mat Rats to grow up we needed to make the audience grow up too. We needed to move things in a more adult oriented direction."
"The first time I got to wrestle without that damned monkey mask was so liberating. In the middle of the match I busted out some old break dancing moves and the crowd was eating it up. I went out there, had a great match and got to the back and Eric had this huge smile on his face. He said 'Jack, you are going to be the future of wrestling!' I was way stoked. Then he said 'We want to do an angle where you get molested!' and I was like 'WHAT?' Eric thought it would be the best thing ever. I was like 'HELL NAH' but he kept pushing me and pushing me. Finally Teddy got up and said 'Fuck it, Eric, I'll do it'. That's the sign of a real friend, right there." Evans rolls another joint as he tells me this. "I've always been in wrestling for the wrestling. I didn't want to be part of some stupid shit like this." Bischoff was convinced that the idea was a winner.
"If you are trying to be raw and edgy you have to incorporate some real life scenarios into your programming. What kid out there isn't afraid of getting molested? I have never met a kid who wasn't scared shit less by the thought of getting molested. This was a storyline custom made for Jack. I'm still sad that he passed it off on Teddy. Jack could have shined in this role." In order to get Teddy into character Bischoff arranged for him to spend the day around a group of convicted sex offenders. This was supposed to be a supervised visit where Teddy would not be in any danger. This is where the story of Mat Rats begins to unravel.
FALL FROM GRACE
Bischoff has a hard time telling me what happens next. He has to order another drink and down to compose himself. "I never meant for anything bad to happen to Ted. I made arrangements for Teddy to spend some time with this group of convicted sex offenders in a local state prison. I was given every guarantee that Teddy would be safe. I..." Bischoff's mind wanders for a minute, as if he is stuck in a long passed moment. He snaps out of it and finishes. "I still don't know what happened that day. All I know is that those guards failed Teddy and his family that day."
The day he is refering to is the day Teddy Hart entered the Lake County Correctional Facility. Teddy was going to be a junior officer that day and was going to follow corrections officer Mike Hunt around that day. After lunch Officer Hunt had arranged for Teddy to have a meeting with 6 of the most vile, disgusting sexual deviants imaginable. When the time for the meeting came Officer Hunt lead Teddy to the library where the men he was to study were waiting for him. Teddy was asking these men questions about what drove them to commit the heinous crimes they commited. While asking these questions Officer Hunt was taken by surprise and fatally stabbed by a homemade shank one of the prisoners had fashioned from a toothbrush. Another prisoner locked and barricaded the doors. Teddy was no longer safe. He tried to evade his captors as long as he could, but a 14 year old can only hold off grown men for so long. What happened next was without a doubt the longest 5 hours of Teddy Hart's life.
"They raped him. They raped the hell out of that poor kid. Then they held him hostage. This was all over the news. People wanted to know what in the hell a kid was doing surrounded by hardened sex offenders. Then people found out that he was researching a character for a wrestling show. The press had a field day. My wife had to pull our kids out of public school because we were getting death threats. I was the biggest asshole of all time. People wanted me dead. After that, I just lost the will to succeed." Bischoff now has tears in his eyes. "Teddy did nothing to deserve that. If anyone should have been raped, it should have been me." SWAT officers eventually freed Hart, but for a young boy who had been repeatedly raped for hours and hours, it was too little too late. Hart would later successfully sue the Florida Department of Corrections and receive a settlement in the high 7 digits. But no amount of dignity could replace the innocence that young Teddy had taken from him that day.
"I remember sitting at home and getting a phone call from Eric. He told me that something had gone wrong with Teddy's visit to prison and that he had been raped. I just hung up the phone. I couldn't talk. I went to the cabinet and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels and started drinking."
Eric Bischoff's nightmare day was about to get worse. Much, much worse.
THE LIE, EXPOSED
Jack Evans got drunk that night. He grabbed the keys to Pat Patterson's Mazda Miata and took off. About three miles down the road a state trooper pulled him over. Jack failed a field sobriety test and was taken to jail. This was another black eye for the promotion. What came next would turn out to be the killing blow: Jack Evans was really 37 years old.
"How the hell did that happen?" recalls Patterson, as confounded today as he was the day it happened. "How did we let this MAN get in here? How did we get worked by a con artist? It was the ultimate betrayal. I loved him like a son and he stabbed me in the ass." Patterson has not spoken to Evans in some time and most likely never will again. "I will never forgive him. I can't. It still hurts so bad." Bischoff was equally thrown for a loss when he received word that his top star was in fact a grown man.
"I dropped the phone. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The fact that Jack lied about his age and forged his documents was disgusting. What was even more disgusting was the fact we all knew that Jack had an ongoing sexual relationship with our 14 year old female ring announcer."
That was statutory rape, and Jack Evans was a statutory rapist.
"Right then I knew it was over. I knew Mat Rats was dead in the water." The tears are flowing down Bischoff's face. " There was no way we could survive this. Right then I called everyone involved with the company and told them what had happened and that I was glad to work with them but it was over. We never ran another show again. My miscalculation and Jack Evan's deception had ruined the hard work of so many people. I still feel bad about it. Mat Rats should have been the future of the future of wrestling. I let a lot of people down."
At this point Bischoff shakes my hand and tells me that he can't talk about this any further. I tell him I understand and thank him for his time. He walks away, visibly shaken. Pat Patterson's response to the death of Mat Rats was to go back to the welcome arms of Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Jack Evans did what every other drug taking, alcoholic, statutory rapist professional wrestler does when faced with the law: He ran off to Mexico and became a huge star. He knows exactly how many days he has left until the statute of limitations runs out and he is free to return to America. What he doesn't know is if that is what he wants to do.
"I kinda got it made down here. Teddy is down here. I got my best friend, I got weed, I got pills, I got all the pussy I could ever want. Why would I go back to America?"
That is the tale of Mat Rats. Getting mom and dad's permission was only HALF the job. The other half? Bleeding, of course.