One ragtag group of WWE-aspiring athletes proves Santa Cruz and wrestling are a perfect match
“I’m gonna break you in half, toothpick!” shouts Golden Boy, an oiled-up 6-foot-2 Bradley Cooper look-alike in gold spandex. A curly-haired Bullet braces himself for his opponent’s signature move: the “Bay to Breaker.”
“You’ll be able to point it out when he’s tapping out and starts crying,” says Golden Boy of his infamous leg lock. “It’s nice to have a reminder that you’re better than everyone else.”
Harsh words—but it’s all a part of Dylan Drake’s “Golden Boy” gimmick. The 30-year-old San Francisco-based wrestler competed in his first tournament with Rival Forge Wrestling on Sept. 9, when the local indie pro-wrestling company turned Louden Nelson Community Center into a battle royal.
The first of three fight nights—the next two take place on Oct. 14 and 28—the debut event drew some of the biggest names in indie pro-wrestling on the West Coast, including Sheik Kahn Abadi, The Texas Hangman, and Rik Luxury, plus a crowd of eager Santa Cruzans ready for some high-flying acrobatics, body slams, and trash talking.
“Ninety percent of people who step in the ring never want to do it again,” says Commissioner X, who founded Rival Forge last year. “It’s very painful.”
The Santa Cruz-raised Commissioner says he prefers to have his identity kept secret because, “once you spend enough time in this business, people just start referring to you by your gimmick, and to call someone by their birth name becomes taboo.”
The wrestling action may be choreographed in the traditional “Slam Bang Western-Style”—a fast-paced combination of boxing, Greco-Roman, freestyle, lumber-camp fighting, and theater—coined by Joseph Raymond “Toots” Mondt in the 1920s, but the resulting bruises, missing teeth, broken bones, and loss of brain cells are all painfully real.
A fan of pro-wrestling since childhood, it wasn’t until Commissioner X and a group of local enthusiasts began hosting California Grand Prix Wrestling shows at the Portuguese Hall in Watsonville, and later held Rival Forge events at Cocoanut Grove in 2010, that he discovered how big of a following the sport has in town.
“Once I realized there was a serious fan base here, I wanted to get something started,” he says. “Our goal is to make it so that even people who don’t like wrestling will leave our events having had enjoyed themselves. We wanted to give people a safe place to wrestle that fans would be proud to come to.”
While venue restrictions, staunch city ordinances, and booking conflicts with competitors, led to the loss of the Cocoanut Grove as a viable wrestling stage, and cut last year’s competition short before the final match—the Commissioner assures fans, “there will be a champion crowned this year.”
Settling in to its new digs at Louden Nelson, Rival Forge makes the Fungus Festival site nearly unrecognizable with a WWE-style production of bright lights, a giant ring that rattles like a toaster chucked down a staircase, a fog machine, and a dapper announcer bellowing out phrases like “Let’s get ready to rumble!”
Though their set-up mimics many of the theatrics that made Vince McMahon a household name—face paint, flying chairs, tackling fans, etc.—Commissioner X insists that indie pro-wrestlers are legitimate (yet often misunderstood) athletes.
“One of the things about pro-wrestling on TV, is that it’s a soap opera—I still think it’s a sport,” he says. “When you compare independent wrestling to what Vince does … it’s not on TV, and there are maybe 200 people versus 20,000 people in the crowd. The joke is that it simply means you have no money.”
A WRESTLER’S PLAYGROUND
Considering all of the aerial acrobatics, back flips, tosses outside the ring, and slamming into ropes, that each of the wrestlers does repeatedly throughout every fight, it’s difficult for them to understand why their status as serious competitors is so often contested.
“I can hit a moonsault from anywhere in the ring,” 24-year-old Mike Hayashi says of his signature move. “From the top rope, middle, or bottom, I can back flip onto my opponent from every single direction.”
A born athlete, Hayashi was on his high school wrestling, football, golf and baseball teams, desperately searching for a sport that he could pursue professionally. “Everything had a timetable after high school—I wasn’t down for that,” he explains. “So I went to Sacramento Supreme Pro-Wrestling and they took me in and raised me.”
At a mere 5 feet 8 inches tall, and 165 pounds, Hayashi seems like he would be a piece of cake to take on in the ring. It isn’t until his competitors step onto the mat, and the crowd starts chanting Hayashi’s name as he claws his way to the top rope, that they realize he’s their worst nightmare.
“I wear flashy attire, but I have an MMA style that’s high-flying—I’m more of a wrestler’s wrestler,” he says. “I’ve been pile-driven off the top rope into a chair … I’ve been flipped into a ladder that didn’t break … I’ve seen all the tricks.”
A fan favorite, who has helped build a following in the area from Watsonville to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Hayashi believes a wrestling wave is on the horizon for the Central Coast.
“Santa Cruz and wrestling are a perfect match; I’ve always had an awesome fan reaction,” he says. “Before all this, Santa Cruz and Watsonville didn’t have wrestling. We’re the first to come here—it’s a wrestler’s playground.”
ANSWERING THE CALL
For Josh Littell, a.k.a. Sir Samurai, entertainment is the name of the game. “I talk a lot,” he laughs. “I like to make sure fans are having a good time.”
Despite being an enthusiast all of his life, the 38-year-old Samurai didn’t start wrestling until 2002. His gimmick came about almost accidentally.
“When AOL started AOL Email, I needed an email address,” he explains. “I was studying Aikido and Japanese culture at the time, so I chose Sir Samurai. Once I became a ring announcer, the name stuck.”
Wearing nothing more than a pair of black pro-wrestling trunks—think Speedo meets Depends—with an embroidered pi symbol, Samurai chuckles when asked how much he weighs. “230 pounds,” he says. “I wrestle in my underwear. I could lie, but what’s the point?”
Having carefully documented the name of each opponent and match outcome he’s faced in his career into a notebook at home, Samurai claims that he’s well on his way to his goal of 500 matches, having just surpassed 393. He estimates that he has wrestled each of the Rival Forge competitors at least 1,000 times. But his competitor on Sept. 9—The Business, representing Silicon Valley—was fresh meat.
As the crowd chants, “Business sucks! Business sucks!” and Samurai steps into the ring, he recalls his pre-fight negotiation with The Business, during which he and his competitor discussed who will do what flip when, what type of beating the other would endure, and whether there are any injured body parts to avoid.
“Since we’ve only wrestled a couple of times, we’ll spend a lot of time talking beforehand,” says Samurai. “But I’ve been hit 1,000 times in the head, and I’m 38 years old, so even if I scripted it all out, half way through I’d be like, ‘What’s my line?’”
For that reason, Samurai favors improvisation, though his flashiest move requires some planning. “I like to do a Jumping Top Rope Superplex,” he says. “The opponent sits on the corner, and I stand on the corner with my back to the ring, then I pick him up and flip him. In practice, my opponents are always like, ‘Wait … what?”
A Rival Forge competitor since the Cocoanut Grove days, Samurai, like his indie pro-wrestling colleagues, travels from city to city every night in search of the thrill of the roaring crowd, the body-slamming workout, and the theatrical production. And despite the multitude of jaw-dropping stunts he’s pulled off over the years—he once wrestled barefoot on thumb tacs (check it out on YouTube at your own risk), and at another time jumped off the top of a basketball backboard onto a group of individuals who were, as he says, “nice enough to break my fall”—he keeps coming back for more.
“I’m addicted,” he admits. “I’ve driven to Portland and back in a day to wrestle—it’s always worth it.”
ESCAPE FROM THE NORM
Tim Moura, known in the ring as the “British Messiah” Timothy Thatcher, shakes his head in laughter as he watches two grown men in superhero tights duke it out. “It takes years of stupidity to look like this,” he says. “It’s a very bizarre world—I tell my friends about it and they look at me like I’m crazy.”
Born in London, the 26-year-old—who has a 9-to-5 job fixing boats at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center, and a background in print journalism—moonlights as a Charles Bronson-esque competitor specializing in a British-style of wrestling with more realistic and mat-based moves, featuring strikes and submission holds. “I’m God’s gift to technical wrestling,” he says.
Weighing in at “16 stones” (about 225 pounds), and towering over his competitors at 6-foot-3, Moura is confident he will take home the Rival Forge title this year. “Of course I’m going to win,” he says, with a delightfully thick British accent. “The great Bas Rutten once said, ‘you never take a fight you think you’re gonna lose’ … oh, but I definitely won’t beat that guy,” he interjects, as a burly competitor walks by, “he’s kicked my ass many times.”
Though Moura has had a series of wrestling-related cosmetic injuries over the years—“I used to have all my teeth and my nose used to be straight, plus I have this wonderful accent that leads to me getting hit in the head”—his passion for the sport has only increased. “It’s a good release,” he says.
Having lost the Worldwide Internet Championship after holding the title for over a year, the British Messiah is back with a vengeance, though he admits, “I’ll take all the luck I can get.”
A sharply dressed Dylan Drake returns to the stage in a suit, with gelled hair, aviator glasses and patent leather shoes, as The Business and Sir Samurai go head to head in the ring. Taking on the role of The Business’ manager—one of many characters he will play throughout the course of the evening—Drake talks smack to Samurai.
“You wanna piece of me?” Drake shouts, leaning into the ropes. “Come on, let’s do this! I’ll fight you!”
“Way more goes into wrestling than what you see on TV,” says Drake, of his many hats. Like an actor running lines, Drake has rehearsed an entire scene with his fellow competitors, during which he and his voluptuous secretary intervene during the fight to heighten the drama and draw the audience into the action.
In the business of “embarrassing people since 2005,” Drake does not break out of his character for a split second.
Of his Golden Boy gimmick, he smirks, “the people chose it—it’s natural, the golden choice.” Considering he is the longest reigning All Pro-Wrestling Universal Heavyweight Champion in history, Drake isn’t all talk, either.
“This is where I chose to put my talents. While some of these chumps chase their dreams, I make mine reality,” he quips. He may have been a newcomer at Rival Forge, but he left a force to be reckoned with, after devouring The Bullet in a brutal beating that was downright difficult to watch.
Asked about battling the stigma often associated with pro-wrestling, Drake says, “I’ve seen full-grown men cry and beautiful women beat the crap out of each other—people’s perceptions about wrestling are entirely determined by what we show them.”
As for why first-timers should attend the next fight night, he runs his fingers through his blonde wavy locks, “Because I’ll be there—obviously. Because they missed me, especially the ladies.”
WHERE A KID [OR ADULT] CAN BE A KID
Though Commissioner X admits that all the bells and whistles—eccentric wrestling characters, a fog machine, an announcer, and rowdy fans—make Rival Forge competitions events to remember, he fondly recalls the days when, as a young man, he would fight anywhere, for anyone who would watch.
“I’d call wrestling companies at 12 and 13 years old asking if they would train me—they’d always say they could, but I couldn’t go anywhere with it at that age,” he laughs. When he got older, the Commissioner trained in Portland, where he and his friends “would wrestle in pizza parking lots in front of just a couple people.”
Today, the diverse Rival Forge crowd includes not only the young men who regularly pack WWE arenas, but also women, children as young as three—some wearing Lucha Libre masks—and some fans in their seventies.
“It’s a family-friendly show,” says Commissioner X. “It’s everyone from families to the typical 18- to 26-year-old male crowd.”
An acupuncture student by day at Five Branches University, Commissioner X prides himself on creating a well-organized competition that is suitable for all ages and emphasizes safety for its competitors—one that he hopes will change what he believes is an “ambiguous attitude toward the sport” by the city. “We’re professional,” he says. “We’re not going to destroy anything.”
To further legitimize the sport, Sparkey the official monitors the fights from inside the ring. “No respect for the ref!” he barks at a few wisecracking wrestlers. “I’m trying to keep these guys in line in order to get a clear and concise winner.”
That can mean everything from getting in the face of an unruly competitor, to lying on his stomach as he administers a three-count after a pinfall, to swerving out of the way of blows. “When people give it a chance, they can really get into the characters,” says Sparkey.
Commissioner X couldn’t agree more. He believes that Rival Forge is only the birth of a wrestling revolution to occur in the Monterey Bay area in the next few years.
“The most recent survey taken by the WWE said that 80 percent of America watches it—but how many of those people would actually admit it?” says the Commissioner. “It’s funny to see who is in the front row screaming bloody murder at our events.”
The next Rival Forge Wrestling event kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz, followed by a final competition at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 28, at the same location. The Oct. 14 competition will feature WWE Superstar Gangrel in his Rival Forge in-ring debut. Tickets are $10, and can be purchased at rivalforge.com.
Photos: Kelly Vaillancourt, Captions:
1. Perry Von Vicious (right) takes on the Suburban Commandos in the Rival Forge ring on Sept. 9.
2. Adam Thorn Stowe defeated Dave Dutra in the fight of all fights.
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4. El Chupacabra battles Sheik Khan Abadi.
5. The Golden Boy annihilates “The Bullet” Blane Davis.