Fights Of Fantasy

San Francisco Chronicle – May 4, 2001
By Dave Ford

Any cultural critic worth her Foucault knows that early-third-millennium America is a smash-mouth, trash-talkin’, in-your-face Wrestlemania world where mere mortals bow before the power of hulking bruisers with bad mullet haircuts who blast bad talk.

And when the wrestlers are done questioning each other’s masculinity, sensibility and virility, they attempt to stun each other with gallumphing moves that make elephant rutting look like ballet.

They are the gym-muscle-poppin’, steroid-fired bad boys (and girls) of big- time, big-money, over-the-top wrestling, and they’ve got a choke hold on the gasping throat of America’s fast-fainting excuse for pop culture.

Ah, but there are noises on the fringes, whispers in the alleys, weird little rumblings on the country road off Main Street. That glittery circus- tent mutant-show of oiled, well-scripted and TV-prettified wrestlers has a sick little bastard cousin.

It is called Incredibly Strange Wrestling. It was born and bred right here in San Francisco. And it is weird.

ISW wrestlers have names like Ku Klux Klown, El Pollo Diablo, Macho Sasquatcho, the SnackMaster and El Homo Loco. They trace their wrestlin’ roots not to the stop-start, stomp-‘n’-whomp hijinks of renowned American wrestlers past and present such as Gorgeous George and The Rock, but to the acrobatic, high-flyin’ lunacy of Mexican lucha libre wrestling stars such as El Santo and the Black Shadow.

The ISW show — including the outfit’s sixth anniversary celebration tomorrow at the Fillmore Auditorium — combines wrestling with music played by loud, hard bands. The show melds a comic book sensibility with punk rock’s do- it-yourself ethos, and marries that to subversive political commentary. The result is the kind of glamorously amateurish — and, therefore, truly wild — shenanigans those over-planned TV corporate wrestle-fests can only dream of achieving.

“There’s nothing else going on like it,” says Audra Morse, a nightclub booking agent for the past 13 years and one of the ISW’s founders. “There are these great costumes, and there are people flying through the air. How could you not be entertained? You’d have to be blind.”

She waits a beat, then adds, “And most people don’t have a 7-foot-tall horned chicken running through the wrestling ring.”

Incredibly Strange Wrestling began, as so many incredibly strange things do, after-hours.

Morse and a handful of friends who collected comic books and lucha libre wrestling masks decided it’d be kind of a twisted in-joke to mount a wrestling show. So Morse booked a handful of bands one night at the Paradise Lounge on 11th Street, where she worked at the time. For an extra couple of bucks, patrons could hang out in the Transmission Theater next door, where, at 2:15 a. m., 10 wrestlers, including two semi-pro hulks from Mexico, went at it.

“We had solid oakwood staging with two layers of packing blankets and one of those blue tarps you get at Home Depot,” Morse says. “I put on the mask of a famous wrestler from Mexico and a tutu and leggings, and we beat the crap out of each other until we couldn’t wrestle any more. And the crowd loved it.”

That was on May 15, 1995. A month or so later, after purchasing an actual ring, Morse booked three bands at the Transmission Theater and set up the ring in front of the stage. The basic Incredibly Strange Wrestling show — combining thrash-rock bands with psycho wrestling — was born.

The formula caught on; soon, the troupe received a call from organizers of the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, which packaged multiple rock bands for that summer’s young adult concertgoers. ISW was to be part of the circus fairway area of the outdoor stadium shows, but the lack of organization — not to mention water, money and changing facilities — at a couple of shows in the Northwest dimmed the troupe’s enthusiasm for the venture.

“They had this raver crew that was supposed to be doing production and sound,” Morse says, “but they were doing ecstasy and riding around in golf carts most of the time.”

The group called it quits after five shows and returned to San Francisco, where their Transmission Theater performances soon became the stuff of underground legend.

Wrestler Macho Sasquatcho says it was there that he got roped into the fray.

He was working at a nearby pizza parlor and delivered a couple of slices to the crew, in part, to grease his way into the show later.

But when he goofed around in the empty ring, one of the evening’s promoters told him to come back that night and wrestle El Gran Fangorio.

“So I go back later, and they introduce me to this guy who’s, like, 6-foot- 2 and 240 pounds and has a championship belt,” Sasquatcho says. (No ISW performer would give his non-wrestling name for this story.) “I talked to him for about a minute to figure out what we were going to do.”

Once in the ring, the pair fell off the script. Sasquatcho panicked and wrapped his arms and legs around the bottom rope of the ring.

“The guy beat the crap out of me with the chair because he had to do something,” Sasquatcho says. “He hit me so hard, he knocked me out for a second. I woke up, and was, like, ‘Where am I?’ Then I had the sad realization that I was in the middle of a wrestling match — and it wasn’t over yet.”

As many bumps and bruises such moments caused, crowds ate it up — including those at clubs on a 1997 San Francisco-to-Detroit tour, and others at Mission High School benefit shows. Soon the troupe outgrew the Transmission Theater.

Which brought them to the Fillmore.

You don’t pack 1,500 beer-swilling, tortilla-throwing, testosterone-pumping wrestling fans into an all-ages show at a good-size rock hall without a draw, and with ISW the draw is its characters.

Wait. Tortilla-throwing? Check. Morse decided at one of the early ISW shows to hand out corn tortillas both as a way of encouraging audience participation and as a way of ensuring said participation didn’t include hurling such projectiles as apples and beer bottles.

In the early days, the characters were charmingly — sometimes disturbingly — twisted. Uncle Nambla wrestled Little Timmy. Castro Boy — an 18-year-old hunk of beef — entered the stage by leaping from the Transmission Theater rafters. The Ku Klux Klown finished off the Man From M.O.N.K. with a high- flying dive only nominally softened by a teeny-weeny parachute.

Tomorrow will see the tag-teams of L’Empereur and Ku Klux Klown battle The Mexican Viking and Super Pulga (that’s super flea). The Conquistador will square off against La Venganza de Montezuma (yes: Montezuma’s Revenge).

The Man from M.O.N.K. (Maniacal Order of Nudist Killers) will be there too, as will 69, the Scientology boy band that also wrestles. So will the SnackMaster, with his plaid-skirt-and-white-blouse-sporting teen “ring girls.” And then, of course, there’s El Homo Loco, who promises he’ll have “beautiful, diesel-dyke ring girls who should be able to protect me as I enter, if they’re not too busy making out with each other.”

Tasteless? Well, duh. But there’s a post-postmodern sheen to the whole thing that makes it clear it’s being done with a great big wink. The matches have a story line co-announced by a mountain of a man called Count Dante and his sidekick, Alan Bolte. The two riff from scripts prepared by Morse and others.

“There’s enough dumb things that happen in the paper every day that we’ve got plenty of material,” she says.

As to whether kids at an all-ages show might be adversely influenced by the ISW ethic, Morse is blunt.

“Parenting starts in the home,” she says. “My parents taught me right from wrong. I could have gone to a wrestling show at age 6, and I would have known this isn’t something I’d do to my little brother.

“Our show is more than guys smashing each other. It’s funny; it’s topical; it’s current events. I think kids can learn from our shows.”

And to those who might suggest a character like the pink-tutu-sporting El Homo Loco — who spends most of his matches prancing around and attempting to, er, make anything that’s male — could be construed as being homophobic, Morse says the opposite is true.

“We make fun of the people who are racist and sexist and homophobic,” she says. “Most of us are San Franciscans. And I’m a girl, and I’m running the whole show. I dare you to say anything derogatory against women. I’ll sic a bunch of wrestlers on you.”

El Homo Loco says, “The fact of the matter is, I’m a gay man, and I can live my life any way I choose. And if this is how I feel it’s appropriate, that’s exactly what the gay liberators have been working for. And if (people) don’t like it, it’s probably because they want me but can’t have me.”

What possesses an otherwise reasonably ordinary individual to leap into the wrestling ring for fun and minor profit? First, no reasonably ordinary individuals leap into wrestling rings.

“I wanted just once to wrestle before I died,” says Dancin’ Joey, one of the 69 boys. He hung around the ISW crew for a couple of years, fixing the ring, moving equipment and befriending the wrestlers.

“I was able to convince them I was allowed, that I was cool enough to hang with them,” he says.

Then came the match with wrestler Riza del Norte, which was his inauguration into the ring.

“This guy beat the s– out of me,” Joey says, practically swooning. “He smashed my lip and loosened my teeth halfway through the match. But I finished. ”

Bad Boy Corey, another 69 boy, is 21, has a Matt Damon smile and exudes a sort of antic charm.

“I’ve always been kind of nuts,” he says jovially. “This is a good outlet for a hyperactive kid.”

For El Homo Loco, ISW started as a lark. At an ISW show, he joked to a friend that he could wrestle as El Homo Loco. Morse overheard him and told him he’d be in the next show.

“It was pretty much right up my alley,” he says, “along with the drinking. El Homo Loco is definitely alcoholic. I’ve only wrestled sober once, and I plan to keep it that way.”

Sure, there are hardships, such as the injuries to arms, necks, ribs, wrists, knees. The troupe is insured by the club where they play, and there’s always medical staff standing by at the shows.

“But wrestlers aren’t in this to break a leg and have someone to sue,” Morse says. “These guys are crazy. They enjoy getting beaten up for a living. They don’t want to be whiners about their injuries. They like to take care of them and move on.”

They aren’t in it for the money either. Most ISW wrestlers make between $30 and $400 a night. Some come from Mexico for as little as $20 and all the tacos they can eat.

However, well-known veterans from Mexico can command as much as $2,000 to come to San Francisco, Morse says.

There is no love lost between the motley ISW crew and the idea of, say, the World Wrestling Federation, that cash cow of wrestlin’ fever.

“I used to watch wrestling in the ’70s and ’80s,” Morse says. “The guys were crazy. It sort of lost that in the ’80s and ’90s. I don’t like WWF. It’s a bunch of testosterone-steroid freaks, and all they do is talk. They hardly wrestle.”

Count Dante, the ISW announcer, says ISW is to the WWF what punk rock was to bloated corporate rock music in the 1970s.

“Punk rock was started by bands like the Ramones, who weren’t going into the pay-to-play system,” he says. “They were not Yes or Genesis. ISW is the same. There are local wrestling schools where kids pay $5,000 or $10,000 to train to be pro wrestlers. They want to enter that pay-to-play system. We started out completely amateur.”

But, he points out, that the WWF’s near-monopoly on big-time wrestling leaves room for the ISW to mount shows that explode wrestling stereotypes.

“There’s a fine line between being vulgar and subversive,” he says. “And the side I’d like to see ISW stay on is the more subversive one.”

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