Brad Farley, the latest sharpie in the prizefight game, is warming his ankles in the orange glow of a space heater. He is standing beneath peeling paint and exposed pipes in his warehouse gymnasium in Sauget, Ill. He is speed-talking and fame-stalking and punctuating the details of a wrestling circuit, and a new kind of submission wrestling, that he says he created in 1997.
"What Women's Competitive Sports Submission Wrestling is, is exactly what it says it is," Farley says. "It's a martial art that I put together after a lifetime of learning how to fight. I'm the founder of the art and the president of the WCSSW. I'm the owner, and I'm the one who trains the women."
Farley's wrestling network comprises about 400 women competitors worldwide and about 40 in the St. Louis area, whom Farley mentors. The bouts are staged at nightclubs and gyms, as part of the bill on pro-wrestling and kickboxing cards or wherever Farley can drum up a venue and a challenger to one of the warriors in his stable. The WCSSW road show has muscled into 25 states, most recently staging an exhibition at home in Sauget on Nov. 13, when Farley's protegee Unique "Tigress" Leigh defended her Class A (125 pounds and under) title with a victory over Stormee Knights.
"We're a real, traveling, take-on-a-challenge organization," Farley says. "If you call us up and you want to challenge one of our girls and you're in the weight class, let's get it on."
Farley's type of submission wrestling is an amalgam of freestyle wrestling, kickboxing, jujitsu, judo and other martial arts. WCSSW cards offer all the boo-and-hiss showbiz of a pro-wrestling show, such as combatants with stage names and costumed personae.
But if Farley's fortune will be made, it will be by being different from other pro-wrestling forms. WCSSW events are billed as actual athletic competitions with actual pain, sweat and rancor. And the shows feature a type of submission wrestling Farley claims is a brand-new discipline of sports combat.
"We want to emphasize that the WCSSW is a real sport that really hasn't been discovered yet," Farley says. "These ladies, they're learning to be grapplers and kickboxers at the same time. So what you're really seeing with the WCSSW is a new art practiced by some good athletes.
"If you look on the Web, there are probably 500-and-something female-wrestling Web sites. Most of them are fake. The wrestling isn't real at all. It's just choreographed. And the ones that do wrestle for real, they don't have technique. They're just freestylists. Freestylists pretty much step into submissions over and over again. Anytime we wrestle anybody from somewhere else, we slaughter them," Farley says.
Fake, of course, is the F-word in wrestling circles. Are professional bouts "real," or an amusing bit of live theater? If you believe they're staged, faithful fans say, "So what?" The usual motto around pro wrestling is "don't ask, don't tell," concerning the fake issue. But about the WCSSW, Farley says emphatically: "We don't do predetermined winners."
Nor does the organization do nudity, although many fans expect it. If the gymnasium is the father of submission wrestling, then the nightclub is its mother, and spectators usually want to see a flash of the mother's influence in the baby. WCSSW competitors are athletic young women. And some of them could be, or are, magazine models.
"This gym was given to us by PT's (Show Clubs) because we did two shows for them," Farley says. "Whether we do any shows in the future for them is still up in the air, and it's more my decision than anybody's. The reason is, they want to see us do topless, and we really don't want to do that, because the girls, they really are good martial artists -- for real. So to establish that aspect, and then say, 'Hey, take your top off,' it's a contradiction. There's a fine line. PT's is a great organization for what they do. But for what the WCSSW is, we're having a problem with that."
Crowds for WCSSW cards generally number 1,000-2,000. Farley says that kids make up a large part of the audiences at the non-nightclub shows. For fans of any age, WCSSW cards offer a chance to get autographs from wrestlers and to be much closer to the action than what's afforded on television.
"We offer the theme and the fun of pro wrestling, but when the bell goes off it's real submission wrestling," Farley says, "just like you'd see in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, only without the stuff that would obviously kill you if you did it for real -- pile-drivers, jumping off the third rope, the World Wrestling Federation high-flying acrobatics. We don't do that stuff.
"Plus, we add a little bit of finesse, like you can save yourself (from defeat) by grabbing a rope instead of submitting. So it adds a little bit of flair to the match, and it gets the crowd more involved."
Unique Leigh, a single mother of two, is the star of the WCSSW. She has a career record of 52-1 and a Web site (www.uniqueleigh.com) on which she challenges anyone in her weight class to defeat her and take away her $5,000 championship belt.
Leigh lives in Fenton. She's a grade-school teacher's aide and an accomplished painter. She plans to attend St. Louis Community College next year to pursue a degree in physical therapy. But once in the ring, the former model in Penthouse magazine's Australian edition picks up her calling as a pro athlete.
"I'm a total technician," Leigh says. "Power can take you only so far. When you've used it up, where do you go then? You need to know technique and to practice your skills."
Leigh, who spars every day, signed up for a martial-arts course in self-defense about six years ago. Unwittingly, she found herself taking the first step to a kind of sports stardom.
"I love the competition," she says. "Losing happens to everybody. But I devote my efforts to knowing how to win.