Contact Doug
<< more clips

It's not Easy Being Mean

New Jack: Blade in the Ring

Published 01/20/05 by Creative Loafing

Let's get one thing straight from the start. New Jack did not stab William "Hunter" Lane 14 times with a shiv during a wrestling match in Jacksonville.

He only stabbed him nine times. And only four of the wounds were serious. And, besides, Lane had agreed to be cut. It was part of the show.

"He wanted a brutal match," Jack says.

But to listen to the media reports that swirled around the world, you'd have thought New Jack committed the crime of the century.

"They made it sound like I cut the motherfucker in the parking lot," Jack says. "They made me sound like Jeffrey Dahmer."

The media weren't the only people worked up about the Oct. 10 stabbing. After watching a video of the match, Duval County Assistant State Attorney Robert Lippelman wanted to put New Jack in prison for 15 years for aggravated battery.

"It's one of the most egregiously violent things I've ever seen," Lippelman says. "To any reasonable person, it's offensively violent."

The stabbing started only moments after the match began. The video opens with Lane, a tall white guy, strutting into a nearly empty ballroom at the Radison Riverwalk Hotel, looking cocky and wearing a Crocodile Dundee-type hat.

New Jack comes in next, through a cloud of smoke and the pounding beat of music. Jack goes about 6 feet, 240. He is 42, a veteran of 13 years of hardcore wrestling. He's dressed in black-and-gray urban camouflage and slings a chain and a crutch into the ring before he climbs in. You can tell from Jack's movements that his body is broken in places from a career filled with "suicide jumps" off balconies, scaffolds and lighting towers onto opponents below. His record jump was from 34 feet -- swooping down like a bat from three stories up -- but he snapped his leg when he landed.

As soon as the Jacksonville match begins, Lane starts swinging. He appears to catch Jack in the side of the head with a right. Jack looks mad.

Nobody should ever make New Jack mad.

Lane tries to pick Jack up with the intention of slamming him down. Jack grabs Lane's head with his left arm. You can see Jack's right hand working its way into his pocket and pulling something out. It appears to be a sharp piece of metal. He reaches around and stabs Lane near the neck, then slices his back, near his shoulder blade.

Jack bores in, like a carpenter working patiently with an awl. He cuts Lane five more times. Lane sags to the mat. Jack knees him viciously in the face. Lane goes flying out of the ring onto the floor of the ballroom. Fans are standing and looking frightened.

Jack jumps down on the floor. He slashes Lane, and then stabs him hard and deep in the back. He seems to realize Lane is hurt. He looks worried. He keeps his foot on Lane as the promoter and an undercover cop come over. Jack grabs the promoter, who says something that enrages Jack. He lunges at the promoter, quick as a snake striking. Jack moves so fast, so suddenly, that it may be the scariest thing on the tape. Even the cop jumps back. The tape ends.

About the time that New Jack was stabbing Lane, I was interviewing Robert Prechter, an economic forecaster in Gainesville, Ga., who predicts an increase in the popularity of violent sports and entertainment as the economy sinks into a long-term bear market.

So I was interested when I read a headline on the Internet that said, "Wrestler stabs opponent 14 times in Florida match." I became even more interested when I saw that the suspect, Jerome Young, who wrestled under the name "New Jack," was from Smyrna.

I began trying to track him down. One day in early November, I picked up the phone and heard a deep, gruff, abrupt voice saying, "This is New Jack." Then he started talking.

"Jack is a uniquely talented talker," observes Bill Behrens, an Atlanta businessman who promotes televised wrestling matches in Cornelia.

New Jack and I meet for lunch at McCormick & Schmick's, the seafood restaurant at CNN Center. He tells me that even when he was a small boy, growing up in Greensboro, N.C., he was a jumper.

"When my mom would get off work, I thought it was funny to get on top of the house," he says. "She'd drive up into the driveway and I'd dive off the top of the house right in front of her car. She'd get out and beat the shit out of me."

He was a skinny kid with big ears. "I learned how to fight. I would start shit with no reason. I'm not the type of person that can fight with you and stop. I'll stop when I see you not moving. When you land like you're dead. Then, I'll stop.

"I say that I'm not mean," New Jack says. "But I am. I know I am."

His family moved to Atlanta when he was 15. He played football at Therrell High School and then Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, where he was a defensive back.

"He was a heck of a football player," recalls a former Clark teammate, Lt. Mike Wilson, who runs the Atlanta Police Department's fugitive squad.

"I'd hit you so hard, that if you got up, it made me cry," New Jack says.

He had planned to play pro ball but hurt his ankle during a tryout with the Falcons. "After that didn't go through, I was just like, 'Fuck it.' I became a bounty hunter."

His first time out, he simply tackled the wanted man on the sidewalk. "He thought he was being robbed. He said, 'Come on, man, take my money.' I said, 'I ain't trying to rob you, motherfucker. You wanted.'"

In the urban gangster movie New Jack City, Wesley Snipes portrays a drug lord who turns a New York housing project into a crack factory. Jerome Young was watching that film when he became New Jack.

A friend who was trying to break into wrestling had recently talked Jack into training with him. "I'm watching the movie and I'm thinking about wrestling and thinking about creating a character. I hear the name 'New Jack,' and it just stayed in my head. New Jack. New Jack."

He began to get a vision of the character he would become in the ring.

"I came up with the black army fatigues and black boots. O.J. had just killed everybody in California. There was rioting. And I said, 'I'll be from South Central L.A. My name will be New Jack. My style will be real slow and aggressive, and we don't rap and sing and tap dance and 'Mammy.' We don't do none of that shit. That's when I came up with my character and when I presented it to the people, they were like, 'Yeah!' and I ran with it."

He started out with North Georgia Wrestling at the Alpharetta Auction Barn, then went to Smoky Mountain Wrestling in Tennessee, where he formed a tag team with fellow Atlantan Mustafa Saed. They were called the Gangstas. Part of their act was to taunt white people, the bulk of their audience.

"People didn't want them beaten," Behrens says, "they wanted them dead."

But the Gangstas got a better reception in 1995 when they moved north and hooked up with Extreme Championship Wrestling. New Jack and the ECW were made for each other. The rabid, cultlike fans -- who chanted "We want blood!" and "E-C-W!" -- were part of the show. They brought kitchen appliances, VCRs and other household items to matches so wrestlers could use them as weapons.

"What had gotten Jack heat in the South, being an uppity black guy, made him popular in the Northeast," Behrens says. "He was a 'face,' a good guy. He was different. He was honest."

New Jack began dragging in a garbage can full of weapons and throwing it into the ring as a sort of ultra-violent grab bag. He graduated from broken glass scattered on the mat to forks to bats wrapped in barbed wire to a staple gun.

"One week I was suspended," he says. "I'm laying carpet at home, putting the carpet pad down with a big staple gun. I was like, 'That would be good in a match.' It's got half-inch staples. So during the match, I pulled it out, grabbed a guy by the head and stapled him in the head with it."

Over the years, all the encounters with razors and barbed wire have left a thick mass of scar tissue on New Jack's forehead. The deepest scar is from a pizza cutter that an opponent ran over his head. The next night, Jack says, he stuck that opponent with a shard of metal.

Jack isn't the biggest wrestler, but he is astonishingly fast and powerful in the ring. Many wrestlers are afraid to face him.

But the fans love him. He is the epitome of absolute brutality and true athletic talent mixed with a charismatic ability to communicate with his public, both in person and on TV.

Frank Aldridge has closely followed New Jack's career since Aldridge staged matches at Good Ol' Days restaurant in Sandy Springs in the mid-'90s. Aldridge now runs the WWA4 Wrestling School off Fulton Industrial Boulevard, where New Jack trains when he's in town.

"At ECW, he was the No. 1 hardcore star in the world," Aldridge says, "and really still is."

One of the most violent episodes in the history of American wrestling secured New Jack's notoriety.

On Nov. 23, 1996, Erich Kulas joined with two dwarfs and headed from his home in Cranston, R.I., to Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, Mass., hoping to break into professional wrestling at an ECW event.

Kulas was a vast dumpling of a boy. He weighed nearly 400 pounds and had just turned 17. He created a character for the ring who wore his father's bus driver's uniform. He called himself "Ralph 'Mass Transit' Kramden," after the Jackie Gleason character of the early TV series "The Honeymooners."

He'd planned to wrestle with the friendly dwarfs that night. But as it happened, another wrestler, Axl Rotten, didn't show. Rotten's tag-team partner, D-Von Dudley, needed a substitute. The ECW promoter, Paul Heyman, turned to Kulas, who allegedly claimed he was 20, and told him to shorten his ring name.

Mass Transit and D-Von Dudley were set to wrestle the Gangstas.

A video, made by a fan, shows the enormous Kulas as he struts around the ring, shoots birds at the crowd, then points his rear at them and pats it down. He takes off his bus driver's hat and tie as he prepares for the match.

The camera swings to the Gangstas, the ECW tag-team champions, who rush toward the ring. New Jack is wearing a baggy "Death Row" T-shirt and carrying a garbage can full of weapons that he throws into the ring. Within minutes, he smashes Kulas with a crutch, a guitar and a toaster. Then, he pulls out a blade -- he says it was a scalpel taped to a piece of wood -- and stabs Kulas in the forehead a few times. He slashes deeply across the head at the hairline. The scene is horrific.

Kulas collapses on his back, bleeding profusely. The camera takes a close-up. Blood gushes out of the wound like an oil strike. An emergency medical technician rushes into the ring, trying to staunch the bleeding with pieces of gauze, her hands trembling. Jack is prowling the ring, shouting to the audience, saying he didn't come all the way to Boston to lose to a "white cracker." He puts a foot on Kulas' stomach, shouting, "I don't give a fuck" if he bleeds to death.

Witnesses say members of the audience chanted "Blood! Blood! Blood!" and shouted at Kulas: "You fat fuck!"

Kulas survived, but it took 50 stitches to close the wound. It was his first and last professional wrestling match. Nearly three years later, in May 1999, Suffolk County prosecutors charged New Jack with assault and battery, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

New Jack said afterward that Kulas asked to be cut on the forehead because as a novice, he didn't know how to cut himself in a way that would get the blood flowing. Jack replied, "Sure!"

In court, Jack's attorney, James Merberg, argued that Kulas was injured in a "choreographed, planned match." Merberg repeatedly asked Kulas why he didn't defend himself in any way.

"I wasn't safe in the ring and I wasn't safe out of the ring," Kulas testified. "Where was I to go? I didn't know what was going on."

The problem the jurors faced was the age-old question about professional wrestling: What is real and what is not?

"To you, me and the jury, to determine what's real and fake in wrestling is impossible," Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Michael Murphy told the Providence Journal-Bulletin. Even police at the match "were unaware this was anything but part of the show."

The jury acquitted New Jack on June 3, 1999.

He promptly adopted a new slogan: "Not guilty." He put it on a sign on the front of a grocery cart full of weapons that he wheeled into a match.

New Jack has a knack for turning incidents with seemingly horrendous consequences into boosts for his career and his celebrity.

Four months after the Mass Transit acquittal, filmmaker Barry Blaustein released a highly acclaimed documentary about professional wrestling, Beyond the Mat. New Jack turned in a star performance.

"I'm a very violent person," he tells the camera, "and I'll hurt you and it's no secret." Jack then says he had four justifiable homicides as a bounty hunter. (He laughs off that statement these days by saying, "I plead the fifth on the grounds it may tend to incriminate me." Atlanta police have no record of the homicides.)

Blaustein, who narrates the documentary, says, "Of all the wrestlers I met, the last one I expected to bond with was New Jack."

The next scene shows Blaustein greeting New Jack at the Los Angeles Airport. Then the two of them are riding merrily down the freeway in a convertible. Then we see New Jack in a screen test, reading lines.

"I see some real possibilities with him," says a male casting agent. "I think he could be a leading man, absolutely, absolutely. I think he's got a great face. I think he's got sexuality, charm."

"I think there is a lot of potential there," says a female agent. "But I think he'll be the best friend. I think he'll be Denzel's pal. I don't think he'll be Denzel."

New Jack's future seemed brighter than ever. But in 2001, the ECW went out of business. As an independent, he's been working with a variety of promoters in the United States, Japan and Puerto Rico. That's how he ended up in Jacksonville in a match arranged by a promoter named Maurice Williams, who has claimed to be New Jack's uncle.

After New Jack's arrest for the Lane stabbing, Lippelman offered him a plea bargain -- to serve 12 years instead of 15. Jack stonewalled him.

"If I'm going to do 12, I might as well do fucking 15," Jack told me later. "What am I going to do at fifty-fucking-five years old? May I take your order, please? You want cheese on that?"

He needed to scrape together $4,000 for bail. He got help from an eBay auction of a collect call from "the Original Gangsta" behind bars. The winning bid was $300.

On Oct. 30, Jack got out of jail, climbed into his gold Mercedes and headed up to North Georgia.

There is always a camera waiting for New Jack at the old Mud Creek School gym near Cornelia, home to Behrens' NWA-Wildside wrestling outfit. NWA-Wildside is a minor league association that sends its TV shows to markets across the United States and to the wrestling channel in England.

Behrens lets New Jack go into the ring before matches to talk to the audience and the cameras. Having Jack drop by is like having Mick Jagger make an appearance between bands at the Earl.

After he arrived from Jacksonville, Jack told the crowd he was angry with Williams for putting him in the ring with an inexperienced opponent like Lane. Then, he bragged about the stabbing.

"Everywhere I saw meat, I stuck it," he said. He told his fans he was headed to jail.

His comments not only went out over Behrens' improvised TV network, but they were posted on the Internet and picked up by wrestling writers.

Behrens understands New Jack's ability to bond with fans, in person and on TV. He hopes Jack will go into acting and stop the self-destructive behavior, the bone-breaking jumps, the trouble with the law.

"Honestly, I've told him that's his future," Behrens says. "When Jack hits a stage, you can't take your eyes off of him. He's one of those people, when you see them, you say, 'OK. I get it. He's a star.' Jack has star value, but his own worst enemy will always be Jack."

Jack left Cornelia, assuming he'd go back to jail. But when he showed up in court in Jacksonville that Tuesday, he got some good news.

"The victim wanted the charges dropped," Lippelman said in an interview. "He said he knew New Jack's modus operandi is cutting. They kind of agreed that a certain amount of blood would be drawn by cutting."

New Jack was out about $8,000 with the bail and attorney's fees. But the charges were dropped. Jack was, as he put it, "free like O.J."

Just as Beyond the Mat generated publicity after the Mass Transit trial, New Jack's celebrity happened to get a boost after Jacksonville. Two weeks after he walked out of jail, his face appeared in retail stores across the country.

He was on the cover of a new video game for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, "Backyard Wrestling 2: There Goes the Neighborhood." Jack is brooding on the cover, wearing his urban camouflage with a chain around his neck, holding a scythe of some kind. Next to him is blond porn star Sunrise Adams. Next to her is Violent J of Insane Clown Posse.

In the game, the New Jack character constantly mutters "Not Guilty!"

Jack was the first wrestler hired by the gamemaker to pose for his own computer likeness.

"When I was casting this game, I asked, 'Who are the most hardcore wrestling icons out there?'" says Kevin Gill of Eidos Inc. in San Francisco. "New Jack was on a short list. A very short list."

Jack's on-screen career hasn't done badly. Since Blaustein arranged the screen test, Jack has portrayed a biker in an episode of "Early Edition," a TV series about the paranormal. He's been on Maury Povich as a "scared straight" mentor to an incorrigible youth who cursed more than Jack. He's on a new DVD with Atlanta rap group Goodie Mob. He performed a wrestling skit at a Limp Bizkit concert. Legendary funk bassist Bootsie Collins wrote a rap song for him that he uses when he enters the ring. And CBS/Channel 46 is planning a news special about wrestling in February, inspired by New Jack.

It all has an air of reality clashing with unreality, which is to be expected with professional wrestling.

"Wrestling is perceived as a total fiction," says Behrens. "That's where people make a mistake. Everything you see in wrestling actually happens. If you see somebody climb to the top of the ropes and dive across and smash face-first into the ring, that's not fake. They did that. If New Jack jumps off a scaffold, that happened. This isn't fake. This isn't staged and God knows it is never rehearsed. It's a gray area that confuses people who want a simple answer to a complicated question."

For Stephen Kulas, father of Erich, the Mass Transit incident was all too real. His son filed civil suit in 1999 against ECW, the promoter, New Jack, the dog track and other parties. But ECW went out of business in 2001, and on May 14, 2002, Erich Kulas died of complications from gastric bypass surgery.

Stephen Kulas vows to pursue the case. He primarily directs his anger toward Heyman, the promoter. He's rageful toward Jack but calls him a "pawn."

Jack points out that he had nothing to do with Erich Kulas' death.

"I didn't kill him," Jack says at our lunch at McCormick & Schmick's. He arrives at the restaurant with three rap singers -- his posse in a musical feud with his wrestling foes, the Dudleys.

New Jack is the sophisticate of the group. Although his friends order fried dishes, Jack goes with mussels with white wine sauce and shrimp fettucini.

When we talk about the Jacksonville stabbing, Jack notes that he's been on the receiving end of more brutality than he dished out to William Lane, who has recovered.

As he delicately scoops mussels from their shells, New Jack describes past matches from memory as if he were watching a home movie: "Here's me getting set on fire. Oh, look, here's me with a piece of wood sticking out of my back. Oh, look, there's me with a nail sticking out of the side of my head. And what about this one right here when I cracked my skull and my fucking eyeball was cocked to one side and I had brain shit coming out of my ears? Compare this little bullshit to what I've been through and this match was Rated G."

At the end of the meal, Jack whispers something to the rappers and they immediately thank me profusely for our lunch together.

What is real? What is not?

Eddie "Iceberg" Chastain, a 400-pound white well-digger from Thomaston, Ga., considers New Jack both friend and inspiration, even though Jack has stapled dollar bills to his head and run the end of a broken pool cue through his arm. Chastain's life was changed forever the night he turned on his TV and saw New Jack jump off a Ryder rental truck and land on D-Von Dudley. Iceberg has been a pro wrestler ever since.

"I think people have Jack misunderstood," Iceberg says. "Jack's good as gold. He'd do anything for you. If you piss him off, he'll do what he has to do. But a lot of stuff you hear about him, you don't hear the whole story."