Reading. Rocking. Rasslin’?

Kelly Bell, an innately affable D.C. native and Blair High grad, spends his days in Baltimore with a small group of special-needs kids, who know him simply as Mr. Bell. That’s the day job his master’s degree in social work got him. But to local rock and blues fans, he’s the round mound of sound behind the Kelly Bell Band, among the hottest club acts in the mid-Atlantic region. Bell was recently told that his brand-new CD, the independently produced Ain’t Like It Used to Be, is currently the top-selling disc in Maryland.

Now, as if his plate weren’t full enough, Bell has added another moonlighting gig: He’s a pro wrestler.

Late last year, Bell was approached after a club show by Mark Shrader, a longtime Bell Band fan and co-proprietor of Maryland Championship Wrestling, a rasslin’ promotion based in Arbutus. Shrader introduced himself and told Bell that he loved the set. Bell, not just to be nice, replied that he loved wrestling. So Shrader invited Bell to be his guest at an upcoming MCW card, and Bell accepted. After those matches, Bell went over to Shrader and MCW co-promoter Dan McDevitt to thank them for the invite. During their conversation, Bell confessed that as a youngster, even before his dad took him to see Bobby Blue Bland at the Warner Theatre and he decided to become a music man, he’d dreamed about being a wrestler, just like his ring heroes, Nature Boy Ric Flair and Bruno Sammartino.

“When Kelly said that, I just told him, ‘I think I can make that happen for you,’” McDevitt says.

McDevitt wasn’t blowing smoke Bell’s way. He and Shrader, much like Bell, have carved out a comfortable niche in a field dominated by a very small number of national brands. MCW, which they founded in 1998, is now one of the more successful and reputable independent groups in the country. The MCW partners also run a school for wannabe ring men, the Bone Breakers Pro Wrestling Training Center.

McDevitt has had a few brushes with great acts himself as a wrestler. Like the time when his ankle and wrist broke simultaneously while he was being Rock Bottomed by the Rock, back when the current WWF supernova was wrestling with little fanfare as Rocky Maivia.

But McDevitt swears he can spot talent as well, and he backs up his claim by pointing out that two guys from the MCW stable, Joey Matthews and Christian York, were just stolen away by Vince McMahon’s gargantuan group. And McDevitt says that when he met Bell, he truly believed Bell had all the necessary tools.

For starters, Bell tips the scales at about 350 pounds, give or take a third-grader. As football coaches like to say, you can’t teach size. And Bell’s years of playing to crowds put him way ahead of most other grapplers who enroll at Bone Breakers.

“Kelly’s used to performing,” McDevitt says. “Being on a stage isn’t the same as wrestling, but knowing how to deal with crowds is a huge part of all this. And he’s a very, very big guy.”

So Bell started training with McDevitt. Except for the pain, Bell knew what he was in for.

“I know all about abusing my body for the sake of entertainment,” Bell says. “My band’s been doing over 200 shows a year for a while now, and it’s not that rare for me to get off work, get in the van to drive several hours straight to an out-of-town show, then get home in time to shower and change and go to work and start the whole cycle over. But what these cats in the ring do to their bodies, well, that baffles me. As a wrestling fan, I always wanted to see pain, I wanted to see broken tables, I wanted to see blood. The wrestlers always made sure I saw the whole thing, and I totally respect them for it. Now, I’m on the other side. It’s my job to show the fans those things.”

To capitalize on the new talent’s provincial popularity and the pleasant vibe Bell gives off effortlessly, the MCW honchos positioned him as a good-guy character, or “baby face,” for his first few ring outings last fall. The promotion’s story line, set up in recent months, had MCW champ Jimmy Cicero and his sidekick, Corporal Punishment, playing the celebrated new wrestler’s chief antagonists.

But Bell threw away all the good will he’d built up with MCW fans during last Friday’s card in Fort Meade.

Blame it on a foreign object. One of the big myths of rasslin’ involves the chair shot to the head. Casual fans have always assumed that there’s some artifice to the move—nobody would be so stupid as to allow himself to really get hit in the head with a chair. But, as Bell knows too well, the reality is that wrestlers have always been that, well, stupid. When you see a wrestler getting hit in the head with a chair, you see a wrestler getting hit in the head with a chair. (It’s all in the amazing 1999 ring documentary, Beyond the Mat.)

At Fort Meade, Bell’s tag-team partner and fellow baby face, the Bruiser, accidentally (wink wink) caught him with a chair that was swung at the opposition team of Cicero and Corporal Punishment, who looks suspiciously like McDevitt. This just minutes after the Bruiser had inadvertently (nudge nudge) knocked Bell off the ring apron with another missed move.

Bell then did what any self-respecting grappler would do after the repeated slights: He went heel. That’s ring parlance for going bad, becoming a no-goodnik, turning yang to the baby face’s yin.

Poor Bruiser. Bell sneaked up on his partner and gave him the closing move—which he describes as “a combination inverted DDT and flying clothesline”—that he’d been working on at Bone Breakers. “I came up with the move before I came up with a name for it,” Bell says. “But I think I’m gonna call it the Encore.”

Then, as any self-respecting heel would do, Bell joined in with Cicero and the Corporal in kicking and body-slamming the Bruiser as he lay incapacitated.

“I had to go heel,” Bell says with a laugh. “Bruiser was stealing my spotlight. I can’t let that happen. That was fun.”

The MCW will sponsor a night of wrestling at the Langley Park Boys and Girls Club on April 7. Bell’s band has a gig that night, so he won’t be on that card. He will, however, be debuting material from Ain’t Like It Used to Be at a record-release party on March 31 at Whitlow’s in Arlington. Given the singer’s newest side venture, fans at that show should be careful what they ask for.

“Nobody wants an Encore from me, I promise you,” Bell says. —Dave McKenna