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Cover Stories

Behind the Masks

Is it performance art? Or just crazy? Indie wrestlers reveal all about a growing Santa Cruz sensation

Perry Von Vicious gets the two-legged seahorse Manos Locos in an unbreakable headlock. PHOTO: ADAM FREIDIN

On a winter night on the back patio of Bocci’s Cellar, wrestling aficionados huddle together, cheering and jeering as grown men and women in colorful tights with names like Perry Von Vicious, Levi Shapiro, Samara, and the Santa Cruz Kid throw each other around a square rented ring. The air reeks of sweat, weed and the raging hormones of the mostly male audience. This is the world of indie wrestling, courtesy of local wrestling promotion company Chronic Combat.

Professional wrestling is a billion-dollar industry, and gets more mainstream media coverage than ever, especially when there’s an irresistible hook like last weekend’s news about a jury awarding disgraced wrestling legend Hulk Hogan $115 million in his invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media. Indie wrestling is sort of the punk-rock, underground version of pro wrestling, and it took quite a while to find its way into Santa Cruz.

One of the first wrestling crews here was the short-lived Grand Prix Wrestling, owned by Lawrence Adams and operated by Sparkey Ballard, which started in 2009 but was overhauled and repackaged into Rival Forge Wrestling. Rival Forge Wrestling commanded the Cocoanut Grove at the Boardwalk in 2010, and then continued at the Louden-Nelson Community Center in 2011 before it folded. Picking up the reins, Chronic Combat is looking to go monthly, gathering a new legion of fans whose penchant for men in tights doing signature moves is on the uptick.  

Everybody knows professional wrestling is fake, but does that matter? Like Joseph Campbell’s archetypal figures, wrestlers play upon our deepest fantasies. Heroes like Reno Scum and villains like the Classic Connection act out our inner aggressions as they rise and fall. It’s epic, it’s garish, it’s entertaining.  

Take, for example, the case of Jesse Hett, a Bay Area comedian who once got caught alone in his bedroom watching Summerslam ’89 by his roommate. Pinned by questions of why a grown man would watch something so obviously fake, Hett is indignant.

“Fake? Hardly!” blustered Hett. “It’s staged and it’s scripted, but that’s not the same thing as ‘fake.’ Would you go to see a play and say, ‘Oh this is fake. I don’t think those swords are even sharp! And I bet that’s not real poison in any of those cups. And wait a second, that’s not Hamlet, that’s Jeff! He works at the grocery store! He’s not the prince of Denmark at all! This is fake, let’s get out of here!’”

Welcome to the Freak Show

Like the rest of show biz, pro wrestling has a hierarchy. World Wrestling Federation guys like Hogan, Kalisto and the New Day are at the top of the wrestling pyramid. At the bottom is backyard wrestling, where neighborhood friends gather in hand-stitched tights and smash each other with metal folding chairs. One step up from teenagers throwing mattresses on the ground is indie wrestling. It’s a dubious venture often plagued by shady business practices and fly-by-night operations, and its bloodline can be traced to the back tents of traveling carnivals.

“Fake? Hardly!” blustered Hett. “It’s staged and it’s scripted, but that’s not the same thing as ‘fake.’ Would you go to see a play and say, ‘Oh this is fake. I don’t think those swords are even sharp!

“Back in the carny days, you would have strongman shows,” says Nick Robinson, a sought-after regional pro wrestler who goes by the name Levi Shapiro. “Audience members would be invited into the ring to wrestle the strongman, who could never be beat. But if it looked like the rube was going to win, there was a giant white sheet covering one corner of the ring, and the strongman would wrestle the guy to the corner and maneuver his head to the sheet where another carny behind the sheet would hit him in the head with a blackjack, to make sure he lost. Then afterwards they would either invite him to join them on the road, or pull up stakes and get the hell out of town.”

The word from most wrestlers is that the independent circuit is still pretty carny. There are promoters who work with wrestlers who haven’t been properly trained. Rivalries between competing organizations often erupt into flame wars and trash talk. Unscrupulous business practices cause organizations to change names or just fold up. Unfortunately for the fans, a lot of the tradition is being lost to janky bookers who are looking to make more money by paying less to untrained amateurs. But there are still plenty of vibrant, competent and compelling independent wrestlers like Perry Von Vicious.

Performance Artists

A wrestler’s persona in the ring is a fictionalized stereotype whose narrative should be easy to follow. Perry Von Vicious is a 1 percenter, a heel and a despicable person. Offstage, Von Vicious, aka Dave Grimes II, is humble and thoughtful, a world away from his braggart ring persona. But like Clark Kent changing into Superman, once the wrestler hits the ring, all shreds of their “real life” are left behind, hidden behind the persona.

One step up from teenagers throwing mattresses on the ground is indie wrestling.

At 6 feet 2 inches and 300 pounds, Grimes was the biggest kid doing high-school theater growing up on the East Coast.

“I looked weird acting next to my smaller classmates, so my roles were limited,” says Grimes. “I heard that pro wrestling was kind of like theater for giant gorillas.”

At the end of college, Grimes started lifting weights and decided that he would give wrestling a shot. “I went to a local show, and during intermission I talked to the ring announcer because he seemed approachable and not intimidating.” Grimes got the name of Kevin Landry, who ran a wrestling school in Palmer, Massachusetts, and trained for six months before he had his first match.

Doing shows every weekend, Grimes was taken under the wing of senior wrestlers who would call the promoters and say, “Hey, I’ve got this rookie who will drive me out if you put him on the show.” A decade later, fans from Hawaii to Japan know the name Perry Von Vicious. His appearances in Santa Cruz are always notable, as he struts the ring looking down his nose at the “losers” in the audience.

Pin My Heart

One thing that every wrestler in this story has is a deep passionate love affair with wrestling that started at a very young age.

“My parents would go out on Fridays and leave me with a babysitter,” says Nick Robinson, part of the “bad guy” duo known as the Classic Connection with Buddy Royal. “We would go to the VHS store, and I would get a video game and a VHS tape of wrestling. I’d play the video game all night and wake up in the morning and watch the wrestling. I would watch anything except the Undertaker—I was deathly afraid of him. Back in the day, it was hard to get into the business, but now there are schools everywhere. You had to find your way to find the one smart person to teach you wrestling.”

Originally, Robinson wanted to go to what he deemed the best wrestling academy on the West Coast, the All Pro Wrestling School in Hayward, which was at the time run by the late Roland Alexander. Unable to come up with the $6,000 required to train, Robinson did backyard wrestling until promoter Sparkey Ballard came to watch.

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Seabass (aka the Santa Cruz Kid) feels the pain of a Greco-Roman knuckle lock. PHOTO: ADAM FREIDIN

“He thought I had some talent,” says the side-burned Robinson.

A short while later, Robinson trained at the Devil Mountain Wrestling Academy in Pacheco, alongside some of his favorite wrestlers, like Hellfire and Alexis Darevko. His alter ego Levi Shapiro is now a for-hire independent wrestler who is very much in demand.

Santa Cruz musician Nick Carroll became wrestler Nick Savage when he began training with Pro Wrestling Revolution in San Jose in January of 2015. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. Training several times a week and planning to make his debut in a few months, Carroll was also bitten by the wrestling bug early on.

“There was never a time I didn’t watch wrestling,” says Carroll.  “I was 2 or 3 years old and I remember they captured my attention because they were like lifelike cartoons. I would sit in front of the USA channel until it came on. It was my first love. I only recently thought I had the chance to be a wrestler.”

Unlike Grimes, Carroll didn’t have the advantage of size to give him an edge.  “I’m 5 foot 7 and I’ve been out of shape for years,” says Carroll. “I started pushing 30 and I told myself that I didn’t want to have any regrets if I didn’t try wrestling and pursue my dream. I decided to go for it, and I haven’t quit. So many people quit. Typically I train two to three times a week.”

Mundi is a badass in the ring, and like her childhood heroine Xena, she is a warrior.

Carroll also plays with the Santa Cruz band the Randy Savages, a homage to the professional wrestler known as the Macho Man.  “Of course, down the road I look forward to the day my band the Randy Savages are playing a Chronic Combat show and I get called out and go into the ring,” says Carroll.

Women in the Ring

There’s a stereotype that you have to be huge to be a wrestler, but even more diminutive in stature is Inder Mundi, aka Samara. Mundi is a badass in the ring, and like her childhood heroine Xena, she is a warrior. “I think everyone in the indie scene got hooked into it as kids,” says Mundi. “I’ve always watched it, and it’s always been a part of my life. I didn’t understand how to make it tangible. How do you become an indie wrestler and where do you go? It took time for me to figure out the indie scene in the Bay Area and that I could go to one of these schools.” Mundi started at Big Time Wrestling in Fremont because of Jason Styles, who trained NXT Women’s Champion, Bayley.

“He now has his own school and promotion, so I left Big Time,” says Mundi.

The fiery wrestler, who is recovering from a broken ankle, feels there is a stigma that follows women who wrestle—people never expect them to have as good a match as the men. According to Mundi, “Even if you had a great match, people will always say, ‘It was all right for a women’s match.’ It’s never up to par with men’s wrestling, but it is what it is. You can only do your best. People are always surprised that I wrestle, I guess because I’m small.”

Combat Leader

The indisputable leader of Chronic Combat is Mikey Gordon, a mustachioed, red-haired, burly man whose penchant for courting controversy is well known. In the ring at Bocci’s, he called himself the Santa Cruz Kid. “Now I’m Seabass,” says Gordon. “I’m 32 and not from here, so it was a stretch.” Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Gordon vividly remembers going to the park and coming home and watching WrestleMania III live on TV. At the time, it was the biggest indoor attendance for any sort of sporting event. Title match: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. Gordon was almost 4 years old, and immediately hooked.

“My mom was a low-level pro wrestler known as Sue Savage,” says the hype-man extraordinaire. “I never got to see her wrestle. That was before I was born, but she was always a huge fan. It was more a big event back then, people would dress up. Some people wore tuxedos.”

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Samara takes flight with a top rope plancha dive.

As a teenager, Gordon heard on the radio that there were wrestling shows at a local YMCA. More than 500 people would show up and watch old WWF wrestlers like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and Pete Madden, the Human Wrecking Ball. Gordon’s mother was a dental hygienist who cleaned the teeth of the cameraman who videoed the matches, so Gordon got taken to events and would also be given videos to watch where he could study the moves.

“There was no Internet to find anything out,” says Gordon. “Wrestling at that point in the late 1980s was underground tape trading. VHS tapes of wrestling from Japan and luchadores from Mexico who practice lucha libre [which translates to “free fighting”]. It’s the Mexican equivalent to pro wrestling American-style. Different regions of the world have different styles. It made me realize that there was way more than WWF. There were so many different specialized promotions and styles to get into.”

Then, like now, Gordon got his friends involved. At Chronic Combat shows you see Gordon’s crew setting up the ring (that Gordon has finally bought), putting out the chairs, announcing the shows, working the sound system and selling the merchandise.

Sixteen years ago, Gordon helped combine three Midwest neighborhood wrestling groups into an organization called World Wrestling Rampage. “We would draw 20 people by ourselves, but when we joined up, we drew 100 people,” he says.

Now, the impresario in flesh-fitting tights finds himself in the same position, leading the charge to bring Santa Cruz out for wrestling shows. Perhaps he is motivated by glory, fame and a paycheck, but Gordon takes his fair share of punishment in the ring, often pummeled to the ground for the love of the craft.

It’s been tough for Chronic Combat (formerly BeachSlam) to find a permanent venue for this underground battle of titans. Bocci’s Cellar, the Pacific Cultural Center and a few places in Watsonville didn’t totally pan out. But it looks like outdoors at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall might finally be a landing pad for dropkicks, piledrivers and moonsaults. Don’t expect a dressed-up tuxedoed affair at Chronic Combat events, but do expect to be wowed.

“I truly believe it’s the best form of entertainment—you have acting, you have stunt work, you have to be able to improvise and you have to go in front of a live audience and convince them it’s real,” Gordon says with his trademark enthusiasm.

Chronic Combat may be selling Santa Cruz snake oil, but it’s snake oil with a bite.

Chronic Combat will hold matches on April 9, April 30, May 20 and June 5 at the VFW Hall located at 2259 7th Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 general admission, $20 front row; go to brownpapertickets.com. Admission to matches is 21 and over.

 

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