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.

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