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Drunken American Storytelling: Western Culture Washes Up on the Boozy Shores of a Wrestling Ring in Oakland 

Wednesday, Jul 2 2014

The battle was four years in the making. Juiced Lee and the Dark Sheik are facing off after years as a tag-team duo. But it was inevitable that it would come to this, a fight to the near-death for sole ownership of the Golden Gig.

The Sheik takes the stage, his eyes blackened with kohl, his chest bare. His nails are sharpened to vicious points, his stance wide and domineering. Will the ring be his tonight, or will he collapse at the feet of Juiced Lee?

The crowd roars. As a cloud of smoke rises into the rafters of the Oakland Metro Operahouse, the pounding chant turns into a percussive mantra: "THIS IS REAL. THIS IS REAL. THIS. IS. REAL!"

Welcome to Hoodslam, where the booze is flowing, the pot is in the air, and the wrestling is weird and, occasionally, imaginary.

Tonight's lineup includes the aforementioned Sheik and Lee; Rick Scott and Scott Rick, the Stoner Brothers from "Bluntsville, Okla."; the snarling, mythical El Chupacabra; Drugz Bunny, a cocaine-addicted 1920s gangster (also a rabbit). There are also ravers and evil nerds and videogame characters. A self-described "asshole, dickhead, douchebag bro" called Broseph Joe Brody is your host and emcee.

Held at the Metro Operahouse on the first Friday of the month, this "accidental phenomenon" draws close to a thousand people from around the Bay Area to every show. Laced with crude humor, inside jokes, and Oakland pride, Hoodslam is a wrestling party for people who don't like wrestling as well as those who grew up obsessed with it.

The line forms early outside the Metro on the first Friday in April. Tonight's Hoodslam is going to be special — it's the four-year anniversary and the fans, like the wrestlers, are going all-out to celebrate. Joints are smoked down the line. One group passes around a bottle of tequila, chased with 7-Up.

Inside, it's two hours to showtime. Sam Khandaghabadi balances in a corner of the ring, ropes pulled taut. He leaps off, landing in the center of the ring with a resounding crack. Small and lithe, Khandaghabadi, aka the Dark Sheik, has shoulder-length, tightly curled brown hair, warm brown eyes, an easy smile, and a California drawl. At 28, he's the creator of Hoodslam.

Amid the scattered crowd of Hoodslam's cast and crew (32 of whom will be wrestling tonight) in the Metro's cavernous space, a couple of guys in tank tops with tattooed arms greet each other with high-fives and hugs, while a 7-foot giant of a man stands staring at the ring with his arms crossed, wearing a shirt that reads "#HELL." The music playing over the loudspeakers (metal) is deafening.

The space is mostly bare: two bars and one large stage where the wrestling ring is set up. There's no seating, no barrier, and no frills — if you want to get right up against the stage, you can, though you risk getting kicked in the face (or at least having some whiskey poured in your mouth).

"You picked a good night to come," says wrestler Dustin Mehl. He and his fraternal twin, Derek, wrestle together as the Stoner Brothers. Big, broad, and sporting matching black goatees, the brothers are wearing camo-print fanny packs around their necks. They've been wrestling pro for 12 years now, and they say nothing comes close to Hoodslam in terms of experience, storyline development, and really, fun.

"Tonight, the Sheik and Juiced Lee are facing off for the first time since the first Hoodslam, four years ago," Dustin explains. Derek chimes in, "Yeah, there were maybe, 10, 20 people at the first fucking Hoodslam? Last month, there were over a thousand." He looks toward the bar, deep in thought. "Everything you think you know about wrestling, just forget about it."

Whatever you think you know about wrestling — from the kind on Pay-Per-View to the kind in a warehouse in Oakland — at least know this: It's fake. Elaborate characters, backstories, feuds, and moves are presented as "real," but are 100 percent staged. This alternate reality is known as kayfabe.

When you talk to the people involved with Hoodslam, two themes quickly become clear. One, Hoodslam puts an enormous emphasis on storyline. Each wrestler has a carefully-developed character: history, costume, behavior in the ring. Alliances are made and broken. And stories continue from one show to the next, allowing them to build on things that happened even years ago.

Two, Hoodslam is not family-friendly. "Leave your fucking kids at home!" is the subtext of every event. This is meant to be a direct contrast to the current state of the WWE, the wrestling media juggernaut, which caters to kid-heavy audiences. Hoodslam is adults-only, 420-friendly, and puts a heavy emphasis on "adult themes" including sex, drugs, perversity, and a kind of over-the-top, cartoonish violence.

Hoodslam, then, is a direct response to the evolution of professional wrestling over the past few decades. Khandaghabadi, the Mehls, and the other Hoodslammers who have been around since the beginning speak of the wrestling they grew up with in the late '80s and '90s almost mournfully — many of the things that drew them to wrestling in the first place have been lost in the total industry domination of the WWE. Even the Golden Gig, Hoodslam's championship trophy, harkens to in-the-know wrestling lore — it's a longstanding practice among wrestlers to discretely use a razor blade, or a "gig," to bleed onstage when needed.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Backstage, a curtained-off area behind stage right, the wrestlers are suiting up. The small space is a mess of open suitcases, brightly colored spandex unitards, boots, makeup, booze, and snacks. One of the Mehls is rolling a joint on the base of a trophy. Taylor Correa, aka El Chupacabra, strides in wearing jeans and a blazer, his long wavy hair pulled back in a ponytail. "Eyyy, Chupy!" rings out from all sides as he takes a swig from a bottle of Bacardi. Michael Johnson, aka Drugz Bunny, gives Correa a look; he's absently nodding to the music with an occasional fist pump. A fedora with rabbit ears sits next to him.

Khandaghabadi moves through the backstage mess and walks up the few stairs leading to the stage. "All right, everyone, let's go through tonight's lineup!" The wrestlers gather, many of them dwarfing him despite his elevated position. "Let's have Drugz versus Virgil... how long you guys wanna go for?" he asks. "All night!" one answers. "Who wants to do the Battle Royale? Winners, stay in gear, you're going right into Royale." Comments, questions, jokes proceed. "Is there anything I'm missing?" Khandaghabadi says.

"Fuck the fans!" they cry.

The music has shifted. After a rousing, if surprising, round of disco classic "It's Raining Men," the three-man Hoodslam band has taken the stage; Brett Cavanaugh, Brian Burgess, Mike O'Shea have been around since the early days. The doors have opened and the crowd is pouring in, some clustering immediately around the ring, others heading for the bar. Backstage, the wrestlers stand at attention as the band begins pounding out the chugging chords of the Hoodslam theme song. Everyone raises a fist, index finger in the air, as their heads nod up and down.

It's showtime.

Like any great wrestling fable, Hoodslam has its origin story. It begins at the Victory Warehouse, an underground, hardcore music venue-cum-workshop-cum-dorm in Uptown Oakland. It's ringed by a chain-link fence; grills, iron chairs, and cars sit scattered in the overgrown front lot.

On a Thursday afternoon following the anniversary match, Khandaghabadi is hanging out with the Mehls (both of whom live here), sitting on beat-up couches and chairs, watching South Park and drinking beer. Khandaghabadi is articulate and gregarious; he laughs easily, and often.

Someone starts smoking a bong with a blowtorch. Later, the Mehls will be training a dozen or so men and women, wrestling students at Stoner U.; they'll practice the choreography of wrestling matches, work on moves, and develop their wrestling personas. A ring is always set up over against a brightly graffitied wall.

"Our first show was here, in April 2010," Khandaghabadi says, nodding towards the ring. "There were maybe 13 cancellations? We had 12 or so wrestlers total; the whole thing had lasted like 45 minutes."

But, every month, the show kept growing. "We didn't even put wrestling on the fliers! It just said, 'Hoodslam, the Victory Warehouse.' People would walk in and see the ring. And by December 2010, it was uncomfortably crowded in here. There were maybe 200 people, crowded out to the fence."

So, in January 2011, they relocated to the Metro in Jack London Square. "It felt like a great venue for us," Khandaghabadi says. "It was this big, open space; it felt very Oakland." Its first show at the Metro pulled in "maybe 70 people." But through word of mouth, some social media presence, and roping in local artists and performers, it grew to its current capacity of around 1,000 people per month.

"I was going to every fucking event around here — burlesque, poetry readings, shows," Khandaghabadi explains of his recruitment tactics. "We'd include a lot of Oakland-local performers in all of our shows. The fire dancers, the hula-hoopers, the burlesque crowd, you name it. We connected all these pockets of the community. And while doing that, we still would never advertise it as wrestling. We still don't."

The secret's out, in that regard. But Khandaghabadi is still wary of people "getting stuck on that."

"There's a stereotype, and it's not entirely wrong, that wrestling is a lower class, redneck thing. Neither of those things make sense for an Oakland audience. It is wrestling, but it's also a variety show, music, and some '80s and '90s nostalgia. And everyone is welcome at Hoodslam. From the beginning, we've had a very present lesbian audience. Many of them have said to me, 'We've always loved wrestling, but never felt safe going to it before. We were afraid we'd end up tied to the hood of some asshole's truck or something.'"

Back at the Metro, "Here Comes The Hotstepper" pumps out of the speakers. "Nah nah nah nah," the audio whines as the crowd pulses collectively to the '90s beat. Drugz Bunny swaggers onstage in gangster whites, bunny ears, tail, and nose in place.

"Drugz! Drugz! Drugz!" everyone screams, stomping on the floor and pounding the ring. Drugz is brandishing a plastic bag of white powder; he sticks his bunny nose in deep and snorts, bucking and twitching into the ropes.

"SAY YES TO DRUGZ!" he yells, ripping off his blazer to reveal ropy, muscular arms. There's powder all over the ring and the front row of the audience.

"DRUGZ! DRUGZ! DRUGZ!"comes the reply as everyone tokes in unison.

"Fuck family entertainment!" Broseph roars into the mic, as Drugz humps the ropes. "How many of you are drunk right now?"

This all-Oakland, all-party approach is certainly a good business move on Khandaghabadi's part. His "crazy idea for an adults-only show with smoking and drinking, more like a rock show" appeals to a much wider audience than just wrestling would. But Hoodslam's creation is also largely due to his own desires as a wrestler. Khandaghabadi had loved wrestling as a kid growing up in Georgia and the East Bay (with a brief stint in Iran); and had been wrestling himself for about a decade back in 2010. He and the Mehls were doing the independent circuit on the West Coast, and had gone east to Florida to further their careers.

"I've been paid $5 to wrestle, and the promoter would go to the strip club after!" he says. Khandaghabadi tries to avoid this kind of dichotomy in running Hoodslam. "The wrestlers know me: I don't wear nice clothes, I spend money on pot. I'd maybe like a nicer place to live, but I don't think they'd begrudge me that."

The East Coast circuit was the worst of the worst for Khandaghabadi.

"It was just terrible," he says. "You'd drive for hours and get to wrestle for five minutes. There were no storylines, no creativity in the characters. And that was what had drawn me to wrestling in the first place. When it's done right, it's this incredible form of storytelling, a symbiotic blend of performance and physicality."

It was a form of storytelling that played out on cable for decades.

Back in the '80s, the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) was the biggest wrestling entertainment company, where Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and the recently deceased Ultimate Warrior played out their epic feuds. In the early '90s, it faced major competition from the WCW (World Championship Wrestling), which led to increasingly extreme approaches to performance.

This growing rivalry led the WWF in the late '90s to launch the "Attitude Era," a more adult approach to wrestling in an attempt to edge out the competition. Attitude matches had more violence, more sexually explicit themes, and a high degree of shock value. The gamble worked; this period saw the rise of legendary wrestling names including Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, and The Undertaker. In 1999, the WWF acquired the WCW, followed by the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) in 2001. In 2002, this all-encompassing professional wrestling outfit renamed itself World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. Then, despite the success of Attitude, the WWE changed direction, toning down the content to suit a family audience. So that now, smaller, independent promotions tend to ape the WWE's style by maintaining an all-ages, family-friendly approach. For wrestlers looking to go pro, the WWE is now really the only option.

Khandaghabadi and much of the Hoodslam crew came of age in the midst of this wrestling rivalry and the rise of Attitude. So the WWE's dominance and return to family-friendly programming were at odds with the wrestling they fell in love with.

"The WWE became so packaged," Khandaghabadi says. "There was no depth, no story development. The characters were boring. And I expect more out of my entertainment."

Entertainment informs everything that goes into Hoodslam, from the absurdity of the characters and storylines to the interactions with the fans. The wrestlers' skill is a major part of that. All of Hoodslam's performers are highly trained: Before wrestlers are allowed in most shows, they have to have the blessing of a trainer from a wrestling school. Most wrestling circuits have schools associated with them, and Stoner U is technically Hoodslam's. Erin Jordan, 36, is one of the Mehls' 12 or so students; she's been training with them for about four months; her goal is to be in the ring by September. Her wrestler persona is still a work in progress; "But for now, I am Laura Palmer," she says.

"The trainers, they'll let you know when you're ready," she explains. "They're the ones who set up matches for you." Jordan, who works as an estimator for a public insurance company, was inspired to start training when she attended a Hoodslam match. "I was like, I've got to fucking do this — this is awesome!"

But training with the Mehls does not guarantee a spot in Hoodslam; Khandaghabadi talks about having to "earn" Hoodslam, and the creative freedom that comes with it. Hoodslam's wrestlers have, by and large, been on the circuit for a while, and have "put up with a lot of shit" to be here.

Which means they tend to take things to particularly big extremes.

Hoodslam approaches its "adults only" content with the sly attitude of a misbehaving teenager. This question of what they get away with applies to Hoodslam's particular brand of kayfabe, too. "Fuck the fans!" is a part of the Hoodslam refrain, but having the audience play along is a necessary part of the fun.

And "playing along" is a pretty literal requirement. At Hoodslam, the "fake" isn't just limited to body slams and death feuds. It includes imaginary wrestlers, whom the performers (the real ones) will mime-wrestle. Does it get any less real than that?

Broseph has left his spot behind the commentary table — he peels off his shirt and, in one fluid motion, is in the ring. He is wrestling in a two-on-two face-off; his tag-team partner tonight is Charlie Chaplin.

As in the ghost of Charlie Chaplin: an imaginary man who basically forces the wrestlers to fight themselves. And he's in full force tonight. After Broseph gives opponent Batmanuel a flying kick to the face, Batmanuel, floored, can only cringe as "Charlie" goes in for the body slam.

The crowd goes wild as Batmanuel seizes from the impact.

"THIS IS REAL!" they scream. "THIS IS REAL!"

"Everyone knows the 'secret' about wrestling, that it's not real," says Broseph in the days leading up to Drinko de Mayo, Hoodslam's May 2 event. "We give you a wink and a smile and say, 'This is real!' But when you're completely honest with your audience, you can do what you want. That's why I get so excited when it comes around — like, what aren't we going to do this month?"

A.J. Kirsch, aka Broseph Joe Brody, is, at 30, one of the Hoodslam-connected wrestlers who got very close to the Big Time. A self-described gym rat, he appeared on the WWE's reality show competition Tough Enough, the winner of which gets a contract with the WWE. He made it eight of the 10 episodes.

"Getting eliminated was depressing," he says. "But since I got involved with Hoodslam, the WWE is not the goal anymore. Hoodslam is too much fun to walk away from."

As Hoodslam's announcer, Kirsch is onstage for the whole show, engaging with the audience the entire time.

"We are all about fucking the fans," Kirsch explains with a laugh. "At least, we're all about having a fucking blast out there. The great thing is, they seem to love it."

Hoodslam pushes this creative freedom on all fronts. "It's all about getting the fans to react," Khandaghabadi says of the story progressions. "Take Charlie Chaplin! One guy didn't show up to wrestle one night. His opponent said, 'Can't I just team up with the invisible man?' So we had Charlie Chaplin come out to this silent movie-style music, with all of the wrestlers performing with this invisible man."

He stands up, demonstrating how to "lift" an invisible man in slow-motion.

"I knew it was gold when one of the twins 'picked up' Charlie, and threw him into the crowd... and the crowd parted! And circled around him, and looked down!" He shakes his head. "How? How did they know to do it, too? But, that's the kind of shit that happens."

That spirit of absurdity informs Hoodslam's tagline, "This is real." That developed when one wrestler was throwing invisible fireballs at an opponent, who was ducking and dodging to avoid them. "A.J. — Broseph — was doing commentary, and he just goes, 'Holy shit, this is real!'" Khandaghabadi recalls.

But yes, he confirms, it really does "fucking hurt" when you hit the floor.

El Chupacabra is slowly making his way to the ring; crawling and slithering, he gives a snarl and bares his teeth menacingly at the band, performing under the alias Mr. T Bag (the Hoodslam band goes by a new name every month; previous ones have included Urethra Franklin and Twisted Fister). The chants begin before he reaches the center of the floor.

"Chu-pa-CA-bra!" (clap clap, clap clap clap). "Chu-pa-CA-bra!"

Outfitted in a neon green spandex suit adorned with bones, his face painted and hair teased out, El Chupacabra clambers on the ropes, snapping at the outstretched hands of the audience. His character is unique to Hoodslam for coming from the Mexican masked luchador tradition — but he's unique also among luchadores for wrestling without a mask.

El Chupacabra is much-loved by Hoodslam fans — they roar in approval as he leaps and growls. Many are wearing T-shirts featuring a screenprint of his evil mien. Maybe it's because he becomes his character so convincingly.

Khandaghabadi develops many of the characters and stories himself, but encourages everyone to take things in whatever direction they want.

"Sam gives us a lot of leeway with our characters," says Taylor Correa (El Chupacabra) shortly before Drinko de Mayo. "At other shows, promoters are more like, 'You have to do this that way because I'm paying you, and I said so.' At Hoodslam, we're all just having a great time being us."

Khandaghabadi is the only one who works Hoodslam full time — not because the money's so good, he notes, but because it's incredibly time-consuming. The Mehls wrestle and train full time, but most of the Hoodslam crew works nine-to-five jobs, "or shittier," Khandaghabadi says. Kirsch is a server at The Freehouse in Berkeley. Correa works in a warehouse and commutes to Hoodslam every month from Chico. They also both help Khandaghabadi out with promotion and merchandising.

"I mean, I drive six hours. It's exhausting. But it's worth it," Correa says. "Sam has given us all a stage to perform on, he lets us try things out and experiment."

"We just have three rules at Hoodslam," Khandaghabadi says. "No homophobia. No racism. And no being demeaning to women. You would be amazed at some of the shit I've seen at these so-called 'family-friendly' shows. I'd come out as the Sheik with an Iranian flag, and mothers are holding their kids up to call me a terrorist! Guys are yelling, 'Where's your magic carpet?' to which I respond, 'I drive a Honda, you racist!'" He laughs. "So, whatever. At Hoodslam, assuming we're not in a room full of psychopaths, it'll be fun. And I mean, if you are a psychopath, we'll find some middle ground."

Hoodslam is rooted in Oakland style and pride, and that's intentional. But Khandaghabadi wants it to get bigger. "Definitely bigger."

"I don't think Hoodslam could have been born anywhere else. But I hope it's bigger than just Oakland," he says. Hoodslam went on the road last year; they did shows in L.A. and Las Vegas. They went well, and Khandaghabadi thinks the formula could apply elsewhere pretty easily. "It's about freedom, and it's very organic." Khandaghabadi gets up and stretches out.

"Overall, Hoodslam comes from a good place. We really just wanted to perform. It's about enjoyment, it's about performance." He pauses, and laughs. "Fuck the fans!"

We're three hours into tonight's anniversary Hoodslam, and it's been an epic one. Virgil Flynn III defeated Drugz Bunny in a mind-blowing match. Big Van Faber and El Chupacabra just won a shocking victory over Russian Lover Zangief and Ultragirl Brittany Wonder — we thought Wonder had it when she executed a textbook perfect flying twerk move into her opponent.

The crowd is a pulsing mob of men and women of all ages; many of them are from the East Bay, but a growing number seem to be coming from San Francisco, San Jose, and everywhere in between.

Cameron Clarke, 24, is here for the second time — he lives in Albany, and is drawn to the "darker side of culture" that Hoodslam explores.

"What I always disliked about the WWE was how glamorized it was," he says. "Here, it's super punk. I like the emphasis on the dark, the grunge... and that they have fun with it."

Kelly Justin Wilson, 30, is here for the first time, and notes that the vibe isn't nearly as intimidating as it could be. "It's in a warehouse, it feels like it could be illegal, like it's crossing a line," he says. "But it's not just about the fighting, and the music. It's a party, and it's welcoming. Everyone has their everyday life, and this is the catharsis."

As the final match begins, the long-awaited face-off elicits cheers and boos. Suddenly, it's all over: Juiced Lee defeats the Dark Sheik and is now the holder of the Golden Gig.

The crowd is on fire. "This is real!" they chant. "This is real!"

It's close to 1 a.m., and the audience has become a living, breathing body of manic energy. They move as one to the deafening reprise of the "Hoodslamthem," and everyone is singing along. "Hoodslam! Are you motherfuckers ready?" Broseph yells as he sprays the crowd with a mouthful of whiskey. "Rocking Oakland, California!"

The crowd has witnessed something absurd together, and everyone believed in its absurdities.

Soon, the wrestlers and members of the Hoodslam fan club will head uptown to the Victory, where the Hoodslam after-party happens every month. Then the wrestlers will go back home, back to work. Until next month, at least. By day, you might be loading boxes, waiting tables, chasing your kids, delivering pizza. But by night, you can be a ninja, or a gangster, or a Chupacabra.

That transformation, and the effect it has on the crowds, is what gets Kirsch — Broseph — so excited about these first Fridays.

"Hoodslam is fucking magic. I'm sorry! Hoodslam is something to make you believe in magic again," he says. "That's why we say, 'This is real.' It's that feeling the fans get, the feeling the performers get. The performers give the fans every ounce of energy, and the fans give it back tenfold, and that is real. It's as real as it gets."

Hoodslam "#America" is Friday, July 4, at 8:30 p.m. at the Oakland Metro Operahouse, 630 Third St., Oakland. $10,

About The Author

Lauren Sloss


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