Jan 2, 2009

Lifestyle - Wrestling:a fight for an honest living in corrupt times

Michael J. Jordan

SOFIA, Bulgaria – While practicing takedown flips with a dummy, Hristo Stoilov's phone rang. The wrestler, covered in sweat and wearing tights, listened for a minute, shook his head, then returned to grappling.

Later, Mr. Stoilov explained the call was from a friend offering him "easy" money to rough up a debtor.

Although Stoilov's thick muscles and steely presence might allow him to quickly earn the $200 fee for intimidating a debtor into paying, he says this is no way to live, not even if a single "visit" yields as much as he earns in two weeks as a personal trainer.

"I want to live a quiet life," Stoilov says.

Wrestling, the national sport, once generated jobs, entertainment, and considerable national pride here during international tournaments. During communist times, with state-controlled dreck on television, most towns held Saturday night matches. And the state paid wages to some 50,000 wrestlers and coaches – in a country of only 8 million.

The postcommunist economic crisis left thousands of wrestlers unemployed, says Emil Budinov, a former national wrestling champion and now a coach.

"Imagine: you start winning medals, but then the system collapses and you're left with nothing," Mr. Budinov says. "But you're a strong man, a brave man. So what do you do? You go out on the street."

Many former wrestlers provided the muscle for criminal enterprises, including smuggling. Before long, the thick-necked, shaved-headed, gold chain-wearing thugs personified the society's burgeoning mafia underworld.

As the wrestlers elbowed into more of the action, dozens were killed in grisly slayings. The violence dented the romanticism for Stoilov, who clings to his goals of winning a wrestling championship and of someday owning a private fitness studio.

"I know I can always do the 'other job' if I ever needed fast money," he says. "For now, though, I've still got my dreams," he says.

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