"Dude, who picked this fucking location?"
"Fucking figures. This SUCKS!"
This fucking location is the intersection of 40th Street East and Avenue J in Lancaster, California. It's a bold address, something that sounds like a cross between New York City and Washington DC. The reality is more mathematical than urban - I'm at a Cartesian grid coordinate in the middle of the Mojave desert, something that would be more at home in an artillery fire mission or a Desert Storm after-action report. There is nothing here but rocks, sand, creosote bushes and the occasional Joshua tree. The entire location evokes the feeling of low-polygon count CGI landscapes from the early '90s. There are the two crossed roads. There's an American Legion post - Antelope Valley Post #311. On the horizon is a white cube so large I figure it's part of Edwards AFB. It turns out it's a brand-new Baptist superchurch. Parked at the intersection is a U-haul truck with the words "PRO WRESTLING TO-NIGHT! 4:00PM!!!!" spray painted on its side. If I have ever been in the middle of sweet fuck-all nowhere, this is it.
This is the far northern fringe of Los Angeles, the very edge of the territory mapped by the Thomas Guide, the hundreds-pages long map book Angelinos use to navigate the LA basin. I'm here to see backyard wrestling, the "big show" produced by the Underground Empire Wrestling federation. My contact called the UEW a "superfed." Superfederation. It was created when several wrestlers decided they wanted to "take the The Movement to a whole 'nother level." Wrestlers from several other feds across SoCal, the EEW, the SCWA, and more, came together create this new group - which is supposed to be a kind of "superstar" organization. I don't know shit about backyard wrestling. All of this intel is from my contact - The ROn. That's how it's spelled, "The ROn." Capital R, capital O, lower case n. The is very important. Wrestlers names are very important. I pulled The ROn's name off the back of a postcard entitled THE REIGN OF PAIN - introducing the future stars of wrestling! Google took me to a site, which took me to a message board, which took me to The ROn. Which brought me here.
There is a skinny little 15 year old boy with blonde spiky hair is sitting out in the dirt parking lot on a cinderblock planter. A heavyset blonde girl with her hair pulled back in to a ponytail walks up. She has a digital camera and is wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. The sweatshirt has been embroidered with big, red Frankenstein stitching around the borders. On the front, she's sewn on an American flag - upside down.
"Did you bring the camera?" the boy asks.
"Yes, use your fucking eyes. It's right here in my hand, stupid." She must be the girldfriend. She sits down right next to him. Another boy walks up. This one has black spiky hair and a black T-shirt that reads LETHAL FORCE.
"Dude? Where the fuck is everybody?"
"That guy over there is the only guy who showed up." Boyfriend/Girlfriend are pointing at me. I am taking pictures of the u-haul. They think I can't hear them, because their hearing has been irreparably damaged by their walkmans. What they don't know is that at 30, a year ago, I scored in the 95th percentile on my army hearing test. I hear everything.
"Dude, who picked this fucking location?" asks LETHAL FORCE.
"Andre," says the boyfriend. Everyone exchanges knowing glances.
"Fucking figures. This SUCKS! What happened to the TV commercial?"
"They took our money, but nobody saw it. They didn't run it!"
"What's going to fucking suck is if nobody shows up for the match! That is going to fucking SUCK!" says Girlfriend.
I'm the man on the ground. I've been sent do a kind of cultural crash site investigation. I have my pocket notebook, a Bic 4 color pen, my Pentax SLR 35mm camera, 5 rolls of film, a 1/2 pound of beef jerky and a six pack of Mountain Dew Code Red. A fellow could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that. It's 4:00pm. The show is due to start. I am the only person here who isn't a wrestler.
The Legion post is walled off. Inside the wall, we could be in Iowa. There's a beautiful, if incongruous lawn. There is a massive oak tree to provide shade. The incongruities continue. In the center of this beautiful lawn, where one can easily imagine the Legionnaires in their garrison caps and plaid shirts eating plates of baked beans and park barbeque, is a wrestling ring. The ring is full sized, surrounded by stacking chairs. There are maybe 25 kids here, ranging from about 14 to 21. It's a gagglefuck - the show won't be starting at 4:00, that much is obvious.
All of this comes as a tremendous relief to me. I was worried that this had somehow broken big. I would show up to a massive hall packed with hundreds of people. The kids would have handlers from down in LA. There would be rock and roll lights, an earsplitting sound system, men with stopwatches and spreadsheets.
No danger of that here. Not anytime soon.
Via email, I told ROn to look for a tall, blonde guy with a military haircut. ROn told me he was the only black wrestler, so it should be easy. ROn and his friend Matt walk over. Matt's a big heavy kid with a goatee and a shaved head. They introduce themselves, and I explain that I'm just researching the scene. It's clear to me that ROn and Matt are very good friends.
The ring looks modular - it must have come in the U-haul. It's made of steel tubing and angle iron welded together. It looks professional. ROn later tells me that a "washed-up" ex pro wrestler down in LA makes them. It cost several thousand dollars. I ask if their ticket and video sales covered the cost.
"Yeah! Almost! No. Not yet. We're paying out of pocket, with fed dues." He gives me a sheepish grin. He's one of the most established wrestlers - about 19 years old and in college now. A good looking skinny black kid, about five ten and a hundred and forty pounds.
"This ring is really cool. I'm impressed. You guys are more organized than I thought you might be."
"Thanks. The ring is a big deal. Got to get this thing going now. I really hope you like the show."
"OK! ALL WRESTLERS GET INSIDE!" These maximum volume directions come from Pam. Pam is supposedly the mother of two of the wrestlers. She doesn't look like somebody's mother. She looks like an aged Metallica groupie - maybe 45 years old? Black platform go-go boots, fishnet stockings, see-thru top, black bra, leather vest and biker cap. Her hair is dyed jet black. She really shouldn't be wearing any of this shit - trust me.
The wrestlers head into the outbuilding though the entrance gate. I don't know if that's what it's really called. It's a metal frame that holds up two blue plastic tarps, yes, the same kind you would use for raking up leaves out in the yard. Two silver home stereo speakers are set up in the grass, along with two red police lights - the kind you can buy at radio shack. In case you're wondering, these lights don't work, not once, not during the entire show. But, it's the thought that counts.
The music starts pumping out of the sound system. Metallica. Rammstein. ACDC. Journey. What? Yes, Journey's "Separate Ways" is met with great approval from all the wresters. Occasionally, a "bong!" pops out over the speakers. A very familiar "bong!" - the Windows "desktop mistake!" sound. I peek into the outbuilding. There's a laptop with winamp on it, running the whole show.
It's all so perfect. They are trying their best. Somebody flipped burgers all summer to pay for this crummy gate. I am more impressed by the love and care and dedication I see in this flimsy gate and its blue plastic tarps than by any of the overproduced crap I've seen down in Hollywood in the past 3 years.
Two 30 somethings show up. The gal is in a baggy sweater with a smart short haircut. The guy is skinny as a rail, with birdlike arms and long stringy hair.
The moment I lay eyes on them, I know they are documentary filmmakers.
They walk around. They say hello to people. Folks obviously know them. They walk back to their tiny Ford Festiva and pull out their camera and sound equipment.
I introduce myself. The gal Nadja is very friendly. The guy Greg doesn't even know why I'm there yet, but clearly sees me as some kind of threat. I couldn't have made up better names for the two of them if I wanted. Greg wants to know why I'm here.
I explain that I'm a researcher. I'm doing a scene analysis. He says that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and walks off.
I didn't go to film festivals for three useless goddamned years so I couldn't spot a documentarian when I see one.
An hour later, things finally get started. The music pumps - Journey again. The emcee walks out. It's a tubby latino kid in a double breasted suit and a knit cap. I later learn its one of the Chunty's - two Mexican-American cousins who are big in the fed. He got a wireless mike. Some actual spectators have shown up at this point, about six guys and two girls. I'm sitting over with the wrestlers.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen ... ladies." He's playing to the two teenage chicks over in the audience. His inflection and cadence are perfect - he sounds exactly like an MC.
"Did you get that suit at the Men's Warehouse?"
"Hey nice suit! Will you be my date to the prom?"
The other wrestlers are heckling him. He seems to be ignoring them.
"Welcome to the high desert of Lancaster, here at the UEW Sadistic Summer Series!" He snaps a look at the heckler. "Fuck your mother!" Then it's back to warming up the crowd, what little there is.
A sweet latino kid in a tan sweater vest comes out and actually sings the star spangled banner. The crowd sits there. He sings in a kind of r&b Mariah Carey pop style, his voice cracks occasionally. Later, I make sure to tell him he did a great job, as he was clearly very nervous. Before the show, I had seen him reviewing the lyrics with a friend.
The show begins -
First matchup - Eric Sharp and Twisted Terry Black take on Lil Gandhi.
Snake charmer music pumps out of the sound system. Lil Gandhi, an Indian-American kid comes out and bows to the crowd, his hands pressed together in front of him. "Namnaste! Namnaste! The light within me reflects the light with in you!"
"Fuck you, you raghead!" the crowd exclaims.
"Peace my friend, peace in your heart!" Lil Gandhi bows to the four corners of the ring. He's wearing loose white cotton pants and a t-shirt that reads "Lil Gandhi" It's been written on with a sharpie.
Twisted Terry Black and Eric Sharp walk out. Their entrance music sound like some kind of speed metal. Their costumes consist of a couple of basketball jerseys. They have nothing on Lil Gandhi.
The setup is this - Lil Gandhi's partner hasn't shown, "He has no pride! No work ethic!" explains Gandhi to the crowd. So Twisted Terry and Eric Sharp are going to gang up on Gandhi. They throw him around the ring, beat the crap out of him in a barely choreographed spasm of violence.
"Oh merciful Vishnu preserve me!" screams Gandhi. "Please Vishnu, take pity!"
But wait! Flying out of the doorway is Lil Lil Gandhi. "It's a terrorist attack!" Shirtless and enraged, he catapults himself into the ring off the ropes. Lil Lil Gandhi is a "high flyer" - very acrobatic, doing flips and rolls. Now the fight is even.
Then I get a surprise. Lil lil Gandhi hurls Twisted Terry out of the ring, down some 6 feet to the grass. LLG climbs the turnbuckle, then leaps down into TT in a massive body slam. LLG grabs TT by the hair, and slams him into the trunk of a nearby oak tree! They've improvised, working the tree into the routine. It's fun! It's play, it's goofy - but these guys really are beating the hell out of each other.
Second Matchup - Ruthless versus Angel.
Ruthless comes out. He's part of Youth Suicide's posse, "Fatal Influence". He's dressed in black, with torn up pants. White kid with spiky black hair. He was one of the kids complaining about the location earlier. His arms are wrapped in athletic tape. He looks like he's maybe 15.
Ramstein's "Du Hast!" cranks up. Angel explodes out of the door with a flourish. Angel is a gothed out skinny white kid in a black trenchcoat, black BDU pants, combat boots, and a black T-shirt that says "PRETTY EVIL." He climbs up on the turnbuckle and makes pistol shapes out of his hands.
"REMEMBER COLUMBINE! COLUMBINE FOREVER! DEATH TO THE JOCKS!"
"Fuck you, geek!"
"Did your mommy not love you enough, geek?"
"KEEP LAUGHING ASSHOLES! YOU'LL ALL PAY!"
That was the best part. The match sucked and Angel lost.
Youth Suicide takes control
The MC climbs up into the ring. He grabs up a discarded T-shirt, and wipes it on his ass before throwing it out.
"Keep your ass off my shirt, you fuck!"
The MC adopts Stone Cold Steve Austin's voice -
"You should be grateful I deigned to grace your shirt with my heavenly assjuice!"
The crowd roars. Suddenly, a mass of 6 wrestlers burst from the gate. They storm the ring. In the front is a tall, lanky white kid - maybe 19 years old. He's wearing a red tanktop that reads YOUTH SUICIDE.
Youth Suicide punches out the MC. He smacks the mike out of the MC's hand. The Fatal Influence crew kicks him once he's down, then rolls him out of the ring. The MC stands up, furious.
"Fuck you, Suicide! We're going to get you! We aren't going to take your shit forever!" The "security" kid comes out and helps the MC back into the ready building.
"This is YOUTH SUICIDE, and you are going to listen to what I have to say! I've had to listen to a lot of shit since September 11th, so now you're going to listen to mine!"
"Fuck you, you commie!" "FUCK OFF, SUICIDE!"
"I am sick and tired of the complaining. Oh, No! America was attacked. I DON'T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT! Remember Pearl Harbor! You bullshit patriots with your bullshit love of country. All you care about is the price of gasoline and cable TV! Well, I HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE! I'M HERE TO EDUCATE THE YOUTH OF AMERICA!"
"You suck Bin Laden's cock, Suicide!"
"I remember something else. I remember NAGASAKI. I remember HIROSHIMA. I remember the firebombing of DRESDEN AND TOKYO. I remember internment camps. I REMEMBER ALL THE BULLSHIT WE'VE HAD JAMMED DOWN OUR THROATS! I REMEMBER THAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS THE MOST DANGEROUS TERRORIST ORGANIZATION IN THE WORLD!"
"Fuck you Suicide. Fuck your mother!"
"USA! USA! USA!" The crowd keeps up the chant, but Suicide goes on, louder than ever.
"WE ARE THE FIRST GENERATION OF AMERICAN CHILDREN MORE AFRAID OF LIVING THAN DYING. I'M SICK OF IT. I'M FUCKING SICK OF SECTION A ASSHOLES RAPING MY PAYCHECK. I'M SICK OF BEING TAXED BY BLOODLESS BUREAUCRATS. . ."
"CUT THIS SHIT OUT RIGHT NOW! You heard me!" It's a strident female voice.
From the gates, it's Pam - crazy Mom-in-black Pam. She's got a mike in her hand. The crowd goes wild.
"PAM PAM PAM PAM!"
"Kick his ass, Pam! Teach him a lesson!"
Pam climbs up into the ring, teetering on her platform gogo boots. She walks right up to YS and slaps him across the face. She punches him in the gut and snatches the mike out of his hand.
"We've had enough of your shit, little boy! Yeah, that's right! You're a spoiled little boy! Well, if you want to wreck some shit, if you want a war, I'll give you a war! Deathmatch! DEATHMATCH! DEATHMATCH AGAINST - THE ANNIHILATOR!"
A hulking blond kid, about six foot two and two hundred and fifty pound of fast-food USDA ground chuck stomps out of the gate like a whitebread Godzilla. The crowd breaks up laughing. Suicide's speech had them all worked up, but this big kid looks like the big quiet guy that drew pictures of "The Punisher" in his notebook during study hall. Apparently he's a retread, a wrestler who had another persona, but who dropped it and has now invented a new ring personality. This new attempt to project an aura of menace and badassedry is funny. What I can't wrap my head around is the fact that Pam is somebody's mother, that she is the "adult" in this situation.
Then it's over and time for the next match. Time wanders. Things shudder and limp along. The next break in the action is a big one, nearly an hour long.
I've just seen something amazing - unprecedented in my experience. Kind of like a punk show, yet serious, but campy, and ... what? What just happened here?
Six latino kids in Mexican wrestling masks rush the ring. They're bigger, maybe 18-21 years old. The masks are amazing. The kids are amazing. The biggest, Super Chunti, is dressed like an escapee from the Los Angeles County Jail.
"Hey man, you're supposed to come over next week and mow my lawn!"
Chunti grabs the mike. "Oh yeah, that's right. Your mom has me come over and fuck her in the ass. That's the way she likes it!"
The match is physical theater - high flips, people hurled head first from the ring and somersaulting to their feet on the grass. hurtles though the air and takes out three rows of chairs. Tomas Fenix, in his white and gold mask, dives at the top rope, deliberately catches it in his outstretched arms, and slingshots himself back into the ring, landing on his feet.
"Ho-ly Shit! Ho-ly Shit!" The crowd chants after each amazing feat of acrobatics. The masks. The super stunts. The theatricality. The kids in the ring really play it up, they feel it. They shout at the ref. They howl. They wail in pain and rage. It's wildly, broadly dramatic. It is not a perfect recreation of a Lucha Libre match - it is a perfect Lucha Libre match.
"Come on ref! They're killing him! Look- ¡Mira pindejo!"
The crowd loves it. The wrestlers love it. They come out of the building to see the best show of the night. Epic in scope, it must last forty-five minutes. It moves through reversals, betrayals, the injustice of the ref. These guys are tireless. They are artists. They have probably been doing this since they were 10 years old.
"¡LUCHA LIBRE! ¡LUCHA LIBRE!"
This crowd is openly, sincerely enthusiastic. The kind of smarty-pants teenage cynical asshole stance is gone. THIS is WRESTLING - the good stuff, the fun stuff, brilliantly executed with huge, ironic gusto. The crowd claps and cheers.
As the match is pushing to its conclusion, the parents, uncles, sisters and girlfriends of Los Luchadores show up. They clap and cheer and smile. When it's over, Dad gives all the boys big hugs. The kids dress back in and everyone sits together, close, talking and laughing in Spanish.
Everyone says it's the best thing they've seen in a while. These guys are new to the fed, a self-contained universe that wanted a venue to do their thing. Los Luchas are instant superstars, because they FEEL IT.
The Shock of the New - 3 way match. The ROn vs. Youth Suicide vs. Mike Eagle.
It's getting cold. The sun is going down. We are in the high desert, and the sun is dropping below the mountains. A cold, katabatic wind pours down out of the northern end of the Antelope Valley.
The crowd is edgy. This is it. What they've all come to see. Eagle, and ROn and Suicide are serious.
ROn comes out to ACDC's "Back in Black" The crowd goes nuts. He's dressed like a south-central gangbanger.
"GO NEGRO! GO NEGRO!"
Youth Suicide comes out to high-speed straightedge punk.
"SUICIDE! Go SUICIDE!"
Suicide struts the stage, eating it up.
Mike Eagle throws open the tarps. His real name is Matt and I know for a fact that he and Ron are best friends. They are two of the key players in setting up today's match. They love wrestling, and they share a too-cool-for-its-own-good brotherly love for each other. Let me just preface things with that.
Mike has a shaved head. He has a goatee. He's wearing Doc Martens and white wifebeater tanktop. He stops cold as he looks up at the ring.
"What the fuck is this? WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?! I quit this shitty league to get away from this bullshit!" Apparently I'm missing some backstory here in the UEW storyline. Mike Eagle has become a skinhead.
"I come back, and the first match you set me up in is WITH A NIGGER? AND A NIGGER LOVER?" Mike is pointing at Ron and Suicide.
There's a pause. The word shocks, even here. The crowd goes nuts. People are screaming.
"Fuck you skin!"
"NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF! NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF!" The crowd picks up the chant. As the evening has been wearing on, more people have shown up. There are close to 100 now.
"WHITE POWER! SEIG HEIL! WHITE POWER!" Eagle is giving the old "Heil Hitler" salute. People are throwing empty soda cans at him. He storms back into the hall.
The match proper starts. It's brutal. ROn and YS smash and flip each other, trip each other coming off the ropes, throw body slams, suplexes, piledrivers, Oklahoma flips. This goes on for five or so minutes.
Eagle charges out. He grabs a folding chair and climbs into the ring. He hammers ROn with it. He swings it into Suicide's face. They are faking it, of course, but they are doing it with incredible force. Everyone is taking some serious bumps. The force escalates. Eagle gets thrown into the chairs outside the ring, and sprawls 12 feet into the audience.
"OK! THAT TEARS IT!" It's Pam, over the PA.
"I wanted a nice clean technical match. Well, if you little pricks want a hardcore elimination match, you've got it! Bring out the shit, boys."
The other wrestlers bring out tables, coils of barbed wire, a 4x6 foot mirror, plank lumber, bundles and bundles of fluorescent light tubes. They aren't honestly going to use all this shit, are they?
What transpires next can only be described as an orgy of barely simulated violence. I question my own use of the word "simulated," because it might imply that nobody actually got hurt.
The truth is that these guys beat each other. They cut each other. They wrapped each other in barbed wire. They were bleeding from barb wire blows to the forehead. The ring became slick with blood. Real blood.
ROn and Mike Eagle smashed Youth Suicide headfirst into the mirror -shattering it. While YS lay stunned in the ring, Eagle sprayed lighter fluid into the broken glass and then set it on fire. Then he and ROn rolled him though the flames. Burning, flames rippling up his back, Suicide leapt out of the ring and was hosed down with fire extinguishers.
ROn and Eagle began hitting each other with the fluorescent light tubes. There was no rhyme or reason to it. It had a kinetic beauty to it. These human forms striking each other with mechanically perfect white tubes that would explode into glittering powder. I tried not to think about the fact that the light tubes had a mercury based alloy inside them. Nadja appears at my elbow and shouts into my ear.
"See what I'm saying? They always take it too far! Aren't those tubes filled with poison?"
"I don't know. My only worry would be if they cut a tendon or major vessel or got some of the glass in their eyes."
"Somebody should stop them. They need to be stopped."
The crowd has dissolved into quiet exclamations of horror and involuntary concern. But nobody told them to stop. And nobody stopped watching.
The wrestlers grappled and rolled in the broken glass that littered the entire surface of the ring. Their backs were lacerated, red with their own blood. I was watching for signs of shock, but they went on and on. Finally, their arms and faces striped red from the bleeding, the ref called the match. Youth Suicide was the "winner."
It was cold now. People were shivering. Some of the crew was up on the stage cleaning up the glass. They were talking about going to Denny's afterwards.
What had I seen? I'm not sure. I saw some incredibly funny shit - wildly inventive and transgressive, because that's what teenage boys do, but this was huge and organized. I saw masculine adolescence with the lid torn off and the brakes burned out. Almost every culture on earth has had to devise some strategy to contain this rage, this volcanic masculine creative and destructive urge. Do we have a strategy?
I saw young men creating new personas for themselves - something they could put on like a suit of clothes and then lay aside when they were done. A lot of these personae were just "wrestlers" - chest thumping in an environment where you know you won't get your ass shot off. There were characters based on social stigma, or radicalism, or racial tension. I think that was part of the appeal - everyone here was friends, they really were. They could act this stuff, confront it and joke about it, and nobody would get killed, because race is still deadly serious in this country. But the way these kids dealt with it gave me a bright hope, if you can believe it. Race was a joke, even the skinhead.
The theatricality. The suffering. Part of me felt like I was back in Cultural Anthropology 101, watching a rite of passage. I think I was. Insulated from danger and dirt by their middle class lives, divorced from any kind of organic folkway, these kids were making it up as they went along. They were looking for the real and significant, even if that meant smashing glass tubes over each others heads. It was atavistic, they were groping for something vital, they wanted the opportunity to bleed, a display of somatic manhood that their own culture was no longer willing to give them. They wanted the crowd to watch them bleed, to show them their strength. It was profane and unstructured and bright. It fun and scary. It was dangerous, like everything truly new is. It followed no rules but its own.
Something new and real and living was taking root in the desert among the Joshua trees, construction sites, housing developments, sand, supermarkets and superchurches. A development no real estate entity had planned for.
Something terrible and full of hope.