OCALA, FLA. — Step inside The Funking Conservatory, a school of higher learning for wrestling hopefuls with aspirations of making it to the big show, and you get a glimpse of the future.
On any given night, chances are good that you'll see an array of talent with bright and promising careers in front of them.
Students travel from around the world to attend the elite school, run by former NWA world champion Dory Funk Jr., bringing with them hopes of one day being cheered by thousands of fans at major arenas or watched by millions more on television.
Some trainees, such as Heather Webber, don't have to go very far in search of a dream.
Webber, better known as “Hollywood Heather,” is a homegrown talent from Ocala.
She's also a WWE diva-in-waiting.
“Six feet of blonde perfection” is how the attractive 22-year-old describes herself.
In her two short years of training at this central Florida academy, Webber has made major strides that have Funk and others projecting her as a can't-miss prospect.
“We believe in her one hundred percent,” says Funk, who runs the school with wife Marti. “We think the world of her.”
There's more than one reason for the WWE Hall of Famer's lofty praise.
Webber is poised, camera-friendly and can throw a superkick faster than you can say HBK.
“She's definitely charismatic,” says Funk. “They used to say that when Joe Namath walked into a room, he grabbed everybody's eyes. Hollywood Heather is very much like that. If you walk into a room and Hollywood's there, she grabs your eyes and she grabs your attention.”
Moreover, says Funk, Webber has the ability and attitude.
“She has an absolute super attitude, and she has some great athletic abilities, too. We think she's got the potential to go all the way. She's certainly got the heart for it.”
Funk, who has been in Ocala since 1987, knows talent when he sees it.
He has helped train such future stars as Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle, Edge (Adam Copeland), Christian (Jay Reso), Matt and Jeff Hardy, and Lita (Amy Dumas).
Webber, who, like another well-known WWE superstar, often speaks in the third person, hopes she can someday be part of that elite list.
“Once you meet Hollywood, you'll never forget her,” she smiles.
Boots for ballet shoes
Born and raised in Ocala, Webber “grew up with wrestling,” having two older brothers who she says were big Sting and Hulk Hogan fans.
“Hulkamania was running wild in my house. My brothers had the Randy Savage 'Bash Buddies' and the Sting face paint.”
While her brothers were avid wrestling fans, Webber was following a different path.
A born entertainer, Webber is professionally trained as a dancer, singer, actor and model.
“I've been doing acting and modeling since I was 4 years old. You name it, I've done it.”
In her spare time, she played a little softball and volleyball in high school.
“Surprisingly, other than dance and a little cheerleading here and there, I really wasn't into athletics. I wasn't a girl who liked to sweat much. I was that girl who would cheer for you really great from the sideline. Wrestling was a big transition for me.”
Webber was with a local talent agency two years ago when she heard about a wrestling show the Funks were staging. WWE diva Mickie James was on the bill, and Webber jumped at the opportunity to see her in action.
“I ended up going to the show and absolutely fell in love with it,” she says.
Webber, only 20 at the time, began attending the shows on a regular basis and grew more enamored with every visit.
“I actually approached Marti about writing for the shows. I have a big creative mind. I do a lot of monologues and a lot of script-writing. That's something I thought I could do. And then I sort of got sucked into the rest of it ... which turned out to be even better.”
The Funks immediately saw potential talent in more than just her writing ability.
“Physically you have to get in and take some bumps and learn the business,” says Webber, who admits that initially she didn't know if that part of the business was something she would be able to get used to. But Marti Funk, she says, was persistent in her attempts to persuade Webber to at least give it a shot.
Not everyone in her family, though, was so sure.
“I put you in ballet shoes, not wrestling boots,” her mother told her.
But with her innate acting skills and superb body coordination, Webber took to the mat like a duck to water.
“The next thing you know, I was in the ring stealing the show,” she laughs.
Two years later, Webber finds herself knocking on the door of some big-time opportunities.
She made headlines in May when she took a piledriver from Jerry Lawler in The King's first match back since suffering a heart attack last year during a live Monday Night Raw telecast.
“That's definitely on the list (of highlights),” says Webber.
“She improves by the day. It's just amazing,” says Marti Funk. “I think she's the most beautiful, talented young lady that I've seen come along in a long time.”
It was divas like James and Beth Phoenix who initially piqued Webber's interest in the profession.
“That's what really got me interested. I knew I wanted to do that.”
Webber already had the acting chops. Learning to take bumps was a slightly different experience. “Dory showed me how to do it, and I just kind of did it,” she says. “Luckily enough, I guess I picked it up fairly quickly and managed to kind of hold my own. The next day I was like, 'Holy cow, I didn't know that part of me could get sore.' But I made it through.”
Most new arrivals are given catchy ring names. Selecting a mat moniker for Webber was easy.
“That came very naturally. Hollywood is who I am,” says Webber. “It's actually something that's been in my family for a very long time. I've always gone by that name. Everyone knows that I've always been an entertainer. I've provided the entertainment at every New Year's Eve and Christmas party you can think of.”
Webber says it makes her job that much easier to have the freedom to portray her real-life character.
“Hollywood has been a character that's been around for a very long time. Now she's just branched off into wrestling and taking over this area of entertainment,” she says.
“Behind the camera lens, she's a hot mama. The camera loves her,” says Marti Funk, who serves as producer of the school's !Bang! TV shows.
Funks 'a blessing'
Webber, who is approaching her second anniversary in the business, is excited about her future in the wrestling profession.
For now, though, she's content with soaking up everything she can while learning from one of the sport's all-time greats.
“They have been an absolute blessing,” Webber says of the Funks. “It's been an honor and a blessing and a privilege to work with them both. If you want to get into this business, Dory is the man to go to. For someone of his caliber to give me that positive feedback, and to take an interest in my career in this business and my future, is sometimes staggering to me.
“And Marti as well. She's been so wonderful personally and professionally in my life just helping me through the business. It's a hard business to be in for a lady. But to have a background so stable and such a strong support system has been unbelievable. ... I can't put a price on that.”
Mastering the art of taking bumps and cutting promos isn't the only thing Webber has learned in her two years at The Funking Conservatory.
“I've definitely learned the importance of professionalism and respect. This business is all about respect. You have to give to get, and you have to stay humble. It's difficult for someone like me to stay humble, but that's definitely something I've learned. If you want it, you have to work for it. It's definitely helped my work ethic a lot.”
Webber also understands the importance of staying grounded.
She attended the College of Central Florida in Ocala in pursuit of a nursing degree. She finished her first year-and-a-half before deciding to “jump into wrestling with both feet.”
Webber took some time off from school, but says she's getting back into it now. “I'm going to finish up that degree because that's important.”
Everything she has done to this point, she says, has led to where she is today.
Her two-year stint at the Conservatory has given her the opportunity to work with established pros as well as students like herself.
“I've worked with Mickie James a couple of times and learned a lot from her. I worked with Daffney early on in my career, as well as Wes Brisco, who was my intergender tag-team partner. Doors have been opened all over for me. It's been a wonderful experience.”
Next month she is scheduled to have a match with former TNA and WWE star Awesome Kong/Kharma.
“I've not had the pleasure of working with her yet,” she smiles, pointing to a wrestling boot with Kong's name on it, a possible precursor for one of Webber's lightning-fast superkicks.
Webber's not making any predictions — yet — but feels she has a lot to add if one of the major organizations comes calling.
“I'm definitely not boring to watch. I think that my physicality and the fact that I am six feet tall and am a bigger girl helps. I'm strong and I'm athletic. But also the fact that I can talk. I know what the crowd likes. That's what this business is all about — the fans. I pride myself in being able to put on a very good show.”
Webber isn't just your average “Florida girl,” as she sometimes refers to herself.
“I enjoy the water. I like to live life. I'm always exploring and going on little adventures. I'm a bookworm when I'm not in the ring. I do a lot of studying. I'm a lady who wears a lot of hats.”
But she also possesses a dramatic flair that sets her apart from the pack.
“Eccentric and entertaining are two words that are very frequently used when you're talking about Hollywood. I'm also a very loving and a very passionate person, and that's perfect for this business because you've got to be passionate about what you're doing.”
Webber is a student of the game, but realizes she still has a lot to learn. As good as she is at 22, there's knowledge to be gained on a daily basis.
“My main goal, obviously like anyone else, is to get to one of the bigger companies, whether it's WWE or TNA,” says Webber. “Everybody wants to headline Wrestlemania at some point. There's always doors open, as well, in Japan or Mexico. I'm open to wherever this profession leads me. I like to try new things. I like to believe everything happens for a reason. If I do go to Mexico or Japan, I'll greet that with open arms.”
For someone with only two years in the business, she boasts a solid skill set.
“That's all Dory,” she says, giving props to her coach.
She prefers the superkick — “I have the nice long legs for that” — but is big enough to pull off the power bomb and a version of Brock Lesnar's F-5.
“I'd like to think that my work would speak for itself,” says Webber. “I don't want to sound arrogant or overconfident in my work, but I definitely feel I have something to offer any big company. I do think I have what they could be looking for.”
She also knows that WWE's new state-of-the-art training facility is only 80 miles away in Orlando.
“A lot of development is going on with the girls they have there now. They're always expanding with their new television show. I like to think Hollywood is versatile enough that she could fit in.”
And she'd like nothing better than to add some more blonde star power to the ladies division.
“They've got a couple of blondes there now, but they definitely don't have any Hollywood in there now. They have some glitz and glamour for sure, but Hollywood could add a little glitter.”
And, if one day in the future, she gets that call?
“That would be a dream come true for this girl. Hollywood would have arrived!”
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Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.