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Two local Joes cashing in on wrestling's popularity

Friday, September 24, 1999

By Rona Kobell, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Andrew Lazarchik is a mild-mannered sort, polite and almost shy as he sips a Sprite and talks about his weekend job.

Tammy Starr, top, gets a grip on Lexi Fife during a match at the White Oak Athletic Association. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

So when he tells you that job entails strutting across a stage in a gold top and patent leather pants, taunting a rowdy crowd and occasionally wrestling a woman, you kind of have to see it to believe it.

During the week, Lazarchik, 23, covers up his alter ego with a blue button-down shirt neatly tucked into a pair of khakis. The Latrobe resident wears small, rectangular glasses and a short, stylish haircut. He's a regular guy, working a regular week at a North Huntingdon printer, where he's a designer.

On the weekends, though, he's Hotshot Drew Lazario. As vice president of Steel City Wrestling, Lazarchik organizes and promotes wrestling shows. That often means putting himself in the act. His partner, Steel City President Norm "Notorious Norm" Connors, is also part of the show, playing a corporate big shot. Connors, too, has a day job: He lives above a funeral home in McKeesport, where he works, and is studying to be an undertaker.

Just how did two clean-cut college graduates start a business where sweaty, angry men toss each other around and concussions are an occupational hazard?

They watched other people, and learned what not to do.

"Ours is more of a family product," Lazarchik says. "Some of our biggest fans are senior citizens and little kids."

Connors agrees. "We are family entertainment. And we get the whole family at our shows."

  Andrew Lazarchik, below, Steel City vice president, slams Little Jeanie to the mat during another match. She won anyway. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

So you won't hear any swearing at Steel City's shows. And if you were hoping to see two scantily clad women clawing each other in a tub of Jell-O, you can forget it. They have women wrestlers, but they're respectfully attired. And all his wrestlers, Connors says, are athletes -- and that includes the young woman who beat up Lazarchik in a match last week.

Connors, 27, started Steel City Wrestling in 1994 after watching other promoters in the area and deciding he could do it better. He established a stable of wrestlers, and put on the shows at various halls around Pittsburgh. Connors needed a designer who could coordinate advertising, and when he met Lazarchik at a McKees Rocks wrestling show, the two decided to work together.

While both stop short of saying wrestling is fake, they admit the shows are staged.

"It's a story, and to tell a really good story, you have to know where it's going," Lazarchik said.

While Lazarchik handles the advertising, Connors coordinates the shows. He lines up the wrestlers, often a mix of local heavyweights and other competitors from Baltimore and New York.

In wrestling, players are either "good guys" or "bad guys," and Connors writes his stories based on interaction between the two. Players typically cheer the good characters and insult the bad ones, as the match is supposed to represent a struggle between good and evil. Lazarchik's character is a bad guy, while Notorious Norm is good.

Characters can change, though. As of last weekend's show, Connors wrote in a scene where Notorious Norm becomes corrupted.

Whether it's the twists and turns in the ultimate male soap opera that is wrestling, or the stars Steel City can draw, the company's business is on a winning roll. In 1998, when Lazarchik signed on, the company had a mailing list of 100. Now, it's up to 600. While shows at first were sporadic, Steel City now packs crowds of more than 300 at its shows, held four times a month.

Steel City Wrestling lists its mailing address as Latrobe, although Lazarchik and Connors work out of their homes. They don't have a standard gig, either. Once a month, matches are held at the White Oak Athletic Association; the rest of the month, shows are held elsewhere in the region, often in the Mon Valley.

The pair also arranges fund-raisers for schools and fire departments. The charities pay them a set fee, then keep all the proceeds from ticket sales. Connors pays to insure the venue, and also gives the required 5 percent of profits to the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission.

Although cagey about profits, Connors and Lazarchik say big-name wrestlers can bring in thousands of dollars. It helps that Connors is a personal friend of King Kong Bundi, who will perform at a cut rate during Steel City's November shows. Three former Steel City stars have signed with the professional circuit, and that also gives Steel City an edge.

"Wrestling's huge in Pittsburgh," says Lazarchik, who notes the World Wrestling Federation has sold out the Civic Arena four times this year.

Wrestling, in fact, is big everywhere. It's among the most popular sports on cable and late-night TV. And in August, the World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc., which organizes about 200 events each year, said it expects to raise $172.5 million from an initial public offering.

Yet, despite Steel City's success, neither Lazarchik nor Connors is rushing to quit his day job. Wrestling is a risky business, hot today but maybe not in five years. Not to mention the occasional broken rib and separated shoulder that can cut into profits, if a popular wrestler can't perform.

Despite the violence, Steel City's promoters maintain their shows are good, clean fun.

"It's just like football, just like hockey -- and people consider those family entertainment," Connors said. Unlike those athletes, he adds, wrestlers sign autographs, hug children and chat up fans during show breaks.

In 1998, the pair maintains, Steel City put on 25 shows, broke even on four and made money on the rest. But Lazarchik insists it was never about the money.

"We do it for the love of the business," he says. "We love wrestling. It's been our lives, our entire lives."

And for the ultimate match? The one that guarantees an evening of unparalleled hair-pulling?

"Axl Rose and Vince Neal 10 years ago," says Lazarchik, referring to the long-haired lead singers of heavy metal bands Guns 'n' Roses and Motley Crue.

And Connors's pick?

"Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky," he says with a laugh.

Now, that's entertainment.

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