The fluorescent lights go out in the spacious brick-walled hall. The red bulbs of a black chandelier are now the only source of light. About a hundred people surround a 200 square-feet boxing ring at the center of the room. Clouds of cigarette smoke float above the diverse crowd—girls in their twenties with thick-framed glasses and flowery dresses, middle-aged men wearing woolen coats and berets, metal enthusiasts with faces covered in piercings, and silent pot smokers wearing Mardi Gras masks and baseball caps with glowing color tubes sticking out of them.
It’s 9:30 pm. A tall man in a tuxedo enters the ring illuminated by a circle of spotlights. He’s holding a lit cigarette. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen!” he yells in a deep radio-style voice. “Welcome to Hoooooodslam!”
The crowd screams, whistles and pounds on the ring’s green mat, causing a powerful vibration throughout the metallic structure. “Are you ready for some action?” the announcer yells, walking in circles frantically with his arms up.
The cheers grow louder. The announcer stops, takes a long drag to his cigarette and smiles.
He knows they’re ready.
On the first Friday of every month, the Oakland Metro Operahouse becomes the rendezvous of some of the wildest wrestlers in Northern California. They call it Hoodslam. It’s not exactly a wrestling tournament. It’s their version of a Friday night out, where humans become demons, furry mascots are referees and videogame characters come to life. It’s a party with rock music, drama and a wrestling ring. Nothing makes much sense to first-time goers. All they can do is enjoy the show and watch out for flying objects. Or people.
A blast of loud heavy metal announces the first match of the night. A huge, chubby wrestler jumps into the ring. He wears a black leather mask and a matching glossy spandex unitard. He greets the crowd by placing a skin-colored rubber dildo in front of his crotch and wiggling it around. Some of the audience members look away in disgust, others laugh hysterically. This S&M nightmare goes by the name of Otis.
His opponent enters the ring, wearing white boxing shorts, bandages around his hands and feet, and an eye patch. His name is Sagat, like the kickboxer from Street Fighter. In the videogame, Sagat is a merciless gigantic muscleman from Thailand. In Hoodslam, Sagat is perhaps less bulky and less Thai, but no less proud.
The bout begins. The wrestlers grab each other by the back of the neck and twirl, forehead to forehead, across the ring. Otis turns his body away from Sagat without letting go. He bends his knees, grabs his opponent’s head and throws him over his shoulder. Bang! Sagat lands on his back, and a thundering sound ripples across the ring.
The one-eyed wrestler quickly recovers, runs to the ropes and slingshots himself toward Otis, making him lose balance and fall sideways. Both men fall to the mat. Sagat pulls himself to his knees but before he can stand up, Otis wraps his arm around his neck and rips off his eye patch.
The leather-wearing wrestler walks to the edge of the ring and proudly shows the trophy to the crowd. But all he hears is laughter and mockery. He turns around to discover Sagat has a spare eye patch underneath the first one.
Infuriated, Otis drags Sagat and pushes him against the ropes. He spreads his opponent’s legs and kicks him in the groin. The audience reacts with a loud “Oooooh!”
Otis targets that area several times throughout the match until Sagat presses his legs together in absolute pain and falls flat on the floor. Otis then sits on his opponent’s face and leans forward, immobilizing him completely.
“Oh, that has to be disgusting,” exclaims Kevin Gill, one of the match’s commentators.
The masked referee—who hasn’t intervened much during the round—counts to three. Otis wins.
Sagat walks out the ring—slowly, bent over, still in pain from the series of blows to his groin. “I don’t think there’s much left under those white shorts,” Gill says. The audience cracks up.
Low blows might be a big no-no in most pro wrestling matches, but not at Hoodslam. “It’s not very respectful,” says Hoodslam founder and Oakland wrestler Sam Khandaghabadi. “But we don’t stop the show if it happens.”
The only two forbidden moves in Hoodslam are choking and eye poking. “We also allow weapons, but they are usually very silly,” he says. “Things like toy swords or piñatas smashed on someone’s head.”
Only professional wrestlers can participate in Hoodslam. “The wrestling is real,” Khandaghabadi says. “We are not goofing around. People can get really hurt sometimes.” But he adds that Hoodslam wrestlers fight to entertain and not to send someone to the hospital. “Our audience knows that this is not about people really trying to hurt each other,” he says. “We’re just having fun.”
Before Hoodslam, Khandaghabadi and his friends—other independent wrestlers from California and Nevada—held friendly matches in warehouses across the Bay Area, impersonating over-the-top characters. “It started underground,” he says. “They were more like private parties that grew over time and eventually became a show.”
Hoodslam started in April, 2010, at the Victory Warehouse in West Oakland. The show moved to the Oakland Metro Operahouse in June, 2011, after the Victory Warehouse closed its doors. “I don’t know what happened,” Khandaghabadi says. “I think things got too crazy over there.”
Hoodslam’s founder describes this monthly event as a mixture of wrestling, rock and pop culture. “It’s edgier than typical wrestling,” he says. “Our characters are extreme and crazy.” A man scientist and his monkey-zombie creation, a leprechaun rapper with vertigo, a Mexican were-wolf, a reincarnating demon sheik and a half-human/half-Tiger super hero are just a some of Hoodslam’s contenders.
“We also have characters from videogames like Street Fighter and Megaman,” Khandaghabadi says. “But the show is definitely not for kids.”
The temperature rises at the Oakland Metro. The smell of sweat and beer fills the ring area. The crowd yells Hoodslam’s official slogan—“Fuck the fans! Fuck the fans! Fuck the fans!”—which according to the wrestlers, can be an insult or a sexual insinuation, depending on the fan.
A.J. Kirsch, one of the event’s commentators, who is sitting at a desk behind the ring, drinks from a bottle of vodka. He promised the audience he would take a shot every time he heard the phrase. This is not his first shot. Nor will it be his last. It’s almost 11 pm. Time for a second bout.
Six wrestlers are in the ring. Hornswagger, a six-feet tall leprechaun wearing a big green furry hat and a flashing bowtie, is partnered with Chupacabras, a half-monster/half-Mexican wrestler with cat-like eyes and large canine eyes. They will fight Super Tiger, an agile wrestler who wears ripped spandex pants and a leather mask with pointy ears, and Anthony Butabi, a silent metalhead-lookalike, with long black curly hair and fierce eyes. All of them have unfinished business with the third pair of fighters in the ring, the 1950’s Italian-American gangster James and his Cuban partner Stoney Montana. Since the first Hoodslam match, the mafia men have threatened to unmask and defeat all the wrestlers to reign supreme at the Oakland Metro ring. Chaos is about to erupt.
Chupacabras wraps his legs around Hornswagger’s waist with his back against his partner’s chest. Hornswagger grabs his Chupacabras’ legs, spins and propels him up in the air. Chupacabras lands on top of Stoney Montana. The gangster’s smooth black wig flies away revealing a bald scalp.
“Who would’ve known that an Irish leprechaun and a Mexican werewolf would make such a great pair?” says commentator Gill.
Across the ring, Anthony Butabi shoots a defiant look toward James. The gangster breathes heavily. He has already received a few flying kicks from Super Tiger. Butabi quickly grabs him by his striped white pants, flips his body 180 degrees and slams him onto the floor. James is down. The wrestler climbs to the top rope at the edge of the ring and raises his tattooed arms. The crowd goes wild.
The gangsters leave the ring. A round of slaps, kicks and flying attacks from Hornswagger and Chupacabras leave Anthony Butabi and Super Tiger on the floor unable to recover after the count out. The crowd celebrates the leprechaun and the werewolf’s victory, unaware that the bout is not over yet.
Out of nowhere, a man dressed in a Winnie-the-Pooh suit jumps into the ring and hits all the wrestlers in the ring with a wooden stick and a 50-gallon yellow trash can that has the word “Honey” painted across it. The wrestlers and the referee flee the ring after failing to control the frenzy of “Pooh Jack.” The bear-man is victorious, for now. The seven wrestlers will meet again in the next Hoodslam on April 6.
A few hours before the Oakland Metro opened its doors for Hoodslam night, Hornswagger, better known as a bulky redhead named Rik O’ Shea, was lying face-down on the ring mat chatting with his colleagues and his little brother Andrew, a skinny 18-year-old with round glasses and long frizzy blond hair. Every now and then, the teenager ran around the ring moving his arms up and down, as if he were lifting invisible weights.
O’Shea was positing that people enjoy Hoodslam much more than any other wrestling event. “It’s more fun,” he said. “Professional wrestling meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
O’Shea, 29, is an independent wrestler from Dublin, California. He describes his alter ego, Hornswagger, as a lyrical leprechaun who is afraid of heights. He joined Hoodslam seven months ago. “I would have joined since the first day,” he said, “but I had some work commitments and just couldn’t do it.”
For O’Shea, Hoodslam is more than a show. “It’s a chance to relax, to escape form the pressures of professional wrestling,” he said. “It’s when boys can be boys.”
O’Shea decided to become a wrestler as a kid when he watched Hulk Hogan on TV for the first time. “It was like watching a real version of Superman or Batman,” he said. “It was larger than life. I couldn’t get enough of that super-hero effect.” His brother wants to follow in his footsteps.
A few minutes later, the crew started unfolding a green mat to cover the ring’s wooden surface. O’Shea shook hands with his colleagues, jumped out of the ring and walked toward a black velvet curtain at the end of the hall. Behind it, the wrestlers had begun preparing for battle.
The fluorescent lights were about to go out.