The Victory Warehouse is a grungy white building in a poor part of West Oakland, California. There are always a few cars parked in the concrete yard and dogs and cats circling some beat-up furniture by the front door. From the outside, it's unimpressive and sparse. Inside, it's every teenage boy's dream. To the left of the entrance are three couches set up around an old TV with a NES, a Sega Genesis, and a Super Nintendo. To the right are two old-school arcade games rigged so you can play all you want for free. Right in front, dead center, is a wrestling ring.
Five years ago, Sam Khandaghabadi, an East Bay-raised wrestler of Persian descent, had some friends living in the warehouse. At the time, he was wrestling on the independent circuit as the Sheik, but had never found an event that was quite right. He knew if he had his own show he could make wrestling fun again. His friends at the Victory Warehouse threw underground metal concerts once a month and said if he ever wanted to wrestle there he just had to get a ring. Khandaghabadi rented a truck and brought one to the warehouse in pieces from across town. "I had the venue," he said, "and I had the ring."
Obviously, there's a stigma around professional wrestling--it's seen as lowbrow entertainment, soap opera for the trailer park crowd. But the people who sneer at it tend to dismiss it in broad strokes, like, "It's fake." Well, duh. It's only once you remove the facade of reality that you can truly start to appreciate the real athleticism and showmanship of the product. Once you come at it as theater instead of sport, it's hard not to be entertained.
"I've done theater, I've done high school wrestling, I've done martial arts, I've done short films, I've done adult film," Khandaghabadi said while chain-smoking cigarettes in the back room of the Victory Warehouse. "It wasn't full penetration, but I was in an erotic film--I've done a lot of things. When you have someone who can act, improvise, engage, and be physically impressive, wrestling is a one-of-a-kind form of entertainment. There is no parallel that I can think of."
Back in the beginning of 2010, Khandaghabadi started contacting all the guys he'd been wrestling with for the last decade on the West Coast independent scene. "I told all these wrestlers, 'Hey, I want to do a show where you can party and curse and be sexual,'" he said. "'There's not going to be any kids. We're going to do what we want.'"
About 25 wrestlers signed up, but only 13 showed for the first Hoodslam in April 2010. Khandaghabadi didn't charge for tickets, so he wasn't paying anyone to perform. "But it made for a really strong core, and the ones that were there enjoyed the hell out of it," he said.
Khandaghabadi describes his event as "the evolution of the three-ring circus": a mixture of wrestling, live music, burlesque, performative self-mutilation, video game role-play, and 90s nostalgia.
The show kept growing every month. After a year, Khandaghabadi finally started charging admission. But Hoodslam was far from a cash cow. "There were still a lot of days I had to choose between food for the week or flyers," he said. "I would get fliers and a pack of cigarettes. The show was more important."
In May of 2010, the Victory Warehouse's landlord said they had to stop hosting shows because the big crowds and endless after-parties were attracting too much attention from the authorities.
Then, right as Hoodslam's future was in question, everything changed. Jamie DeWolf, the founder of the Oakland underground poetry slam and oddball variety show Tourette's Without Regrets, asked Khandaghabadi to put on some matches at his June 2011 show. Though wrestling only made up about 20 minutes of a four-hour show, the owner of the Oakland Metro Opera House saw the performance and asked Khandaghabadi to host an event on the first Friday of every month.
The Metro still brought some of the grit of Victory Warehouse while allowing for a much bigger crowd. The venue is just as smoky and the ring is the same, but the Metro can hold 1,000 people and the PA and lights make it feel like a professional event. Most importantly, the people behind the Metro are hands-off when it comes to the show.
"I go up there and tell them, 'Hey, we're going to do fire today.' They say, 'Cool, we'll get some fire extinguishers ready as long as it's controlled,'" Khandaghabadi told me. "'Hey, we're doing an abortion on stage today.' 'All right, sounds fun.'"
When I walked into the Oakland Metro Operahouse, which sits on a low-lit street a few blocks from Jack London Square, it looked like they were setting up for a rock show. The house band was doing a sound check, burly men were carrying lights and equipment, and photographers were setting up. But instead of a stage, all the preparation centered on a full-size, duct-tape-patched wrestling ring.
Next to the ring was a green room, filled with weed smoke, barrel-chested behemoths, and tattooed girls. Each wrestler had a suitcase full of costumes and was in varying states of undress: tights half on, faces half painted, bow ties hanging undone. There was energy in the room, everyone talking at once, a mix of pre-show nerves and catching up with old friends.
For most of these wrestlers, Hoodslam is the highlight of their month. Every first Friday, they come from all over the West Coast to wrestle in front of a raucous 21-and-over crowd. While the WWE has to worry about entertaining little kids, Hoodslam can be as vile and out-there as it pleases. The show's credo is "Fuck the Fans"--the wrestlers are there to have fun and don't really care if you get it. For them, this is the one time a month they can be as vulgar and violent and weird as they want. Amazingly enough, almost five years after its creation, Hoodslam has become a full-blown hit. Last Friday, the Metro sold out. Once they hit the 1,000-person limit, they had to send fans away at the door.
At 9 PM, the lights at the Metro went down and the Hoodslam band began to play. The crowd, which was shoulder-to-shoulder right up against the ropes, began to scream as AJ Kirsch, who wrestles as Broseph Joe Brody, started his slow walk to the ring.
"Welcome everyone to the BROakland Metro Operahouse," he growled, as the fans behind the ring shot clouds of Axe Body Spray into the air. "Tonight is my show, so prepare for some bro-etry in motion."
Kirsch plays a heel--that's wrestling jargon for a bad guy--so almost instantly the crowd began to boo. About five minutes in, Kirsch had riled the 1,000 fans into a frenzy. They started to chant, "Fuck your mother!" in unison.
Kirsch, whose business card bills him as an "actor, model, public speaker, and social media consultant," called for the house lights to be turned on. His mother sat on a bench against the far wall, and he scolded the fans for being rude to her. He asked his mom what she wanted to say to them, and she stood and screamed, "Fuck the fans!" Right on cue, the whole fanatical crowd began to chant, "Your mom's awesome!" The band broke into the Hoodslam theme song, and Kirsch poured whiskey into the mouths of fans in the front row.
"If WWE tells the kids that there's no Santa, then Christmas is ruined. We make Santa a homeless alcoholic and there are a bunch of drugs in his bag."
Kirsch started training to be a wrestler while studying communications at Chico State. Three times a week he took an hour-long commute to "a crappy, sweaty little gym" called Pro Championship Wrestling in Yuba City. After two years, he finally began to perform, which meant driving up and down California--and sometimes as far away as Florida--playing small independent shows for little or no money. Five years into the independent grind, he sent an audition tape to Tough Enough, a WWE competition-based reality show, and was chosen as one of 14 contestants. He made it through eight episodes, but ultimately didn't win and was not offered a contract by the WWE. At 28, he was back on the independent scene.
But Kirsch knew Khandaghabadi and had heard about his weird little show out in Oakland. Khandaghabadi asked if Kirsch would like to do commentary for the event until they could work him into the Hoodslam storyline. At that point, he was still wrestling as AJ Kirsch, a clean-cut kid who had been on a reality show. He needed a character.
"There's the Stoner Brothers, the Dark Sheik, the Butabis," Kirsch said. "Everyone's character was so out of left field, and I was just AJ Kirsch from Tough Enough."
Character is the key to great pro wrestling, and while the WWE falls into classic tropes of good and evil, Hoodslam uses nostalgia and bizarro costumes to play outside the traditional dichotomy. So Kirsch racked his mind and drew on his well of experience as a Chico State undergrad, a gym rat, and a bouncer to create Broseph Joe Brody, who is "basically a composite of every douchebag bro that I've ever come across."
Kirsch leaned back and grinned as he told his creation tale. He knew he'd hit gold with the young Oakland crowd, to whom bro is a dirty word. "From the moment I stepped out and Nickelback played over the speakers and I sprayed myself with Axe," Kirsch said, "all I heard was, 'Booooo. Fuck you, bro!' And I'm just like, Yes!"
He said it wasn't until he spawned Broseph at the Metro that he ever felt fully comfortable in the ring. "For me, it's not about getting to WWE anymore," he said. "WWE is not where I feel like I would be fulfilled as someone who loves the art of pro wrestling. I feel Hoodslam, more than anything else, excites and invigorates me in a way that nothing ever has and, I dare say, nothing ever will again."
Every wrestler I talked to was just as disenchanted with the WWE. They all grew up wrestling fans, but can no longer get behind the WWE's current kid-friendly product. For the wrestlers, the 21-and-over stipulation is about more than letting the audience drink.
"We don't let kids in. That's not just because I like to drink and smoke and curse, all that good stuff," Khandaghabadi said. "It gives us more freedom to do whatever we want."
He explained that making it 21-and-over cut out at least half of his possible audience initially, but that it made for a more interesting fan base and a much better show. And not having to sell merchandise, championship belts, and trading cards to kids means that no character will dominate the way John Cena--the clean-cut, Make-A-Wish Foundation-loving, baby-faced star--has dominated WWE for the last 12 years.
There's a dream among hardcore wrestling fans that Cena will turn heel like Hulk Hogan did at Bash at the Beach in 1996. But young fans are the lifeblood of the WWE's business, and to them Cena is a god. His heel turn would break the hearts of millions of kids. More important, for those writing WWE storylines, it would be bad for business.
And that same force that keeps Cena from turning heel also forces WWE to nurture the idea, at least in its youngest fans, that professional wrestling is real. "The kids believe it, so if WWE tells the kids that there's no Santa, then Christmas is ruined," Kirsch said. "We make Santa a homeless alcoholic and there are a bunch of drugs in his bag."
Instead of sticking to the illusion, Hoodslam plays with it. Their tagline is "This is real"--it's on all their shirts, merchandise, and flyers. "Rather than trying to convince our audience that it's real, we're going to go completely the opposite direction," Kirsch explained. "We're going to be so ridiculously over the top that you can't help but go with it. If you pay ten bucks and walk through that door, you're going on this ride. So get comfortable, bite your lip, and learn to relax, because we are going to fuck these fans rotten."
The odd play on reality is what separates professional wrestling from almost any other form of entertainment. When we go to the movies, we know to suspend our disbelief. When we watch sports, we're disgusted by any hint that the result might be fixed. But pro wrestling must both trick kids into thinking it's real and find ways to entertain adults who know it's fake. What gets lost in this complicated charade is the incredible athletic feats and oddball mic work that should be applauded.
When I asked Khandaghabadi whether it matters if Hoodslam is fake or real, he smiled and told me a story from one of the early shows, when they were still held at the Victory Warehouse. Scott-Rick Stoner, a member of the Stoner Brothers--a tag team of twin 350-pound, longhaired, bearded potheads--was fighting Charlie Chaplin, an invisible wrestler who appears most First Fridays. During the match, Stoner picked his assailant (who, remember, nobody could see) up over his head and threw him out of the ring and into the audience. "The crowd spread out like he was going to land on them," Khandaghabadi said, "And then all at once turned and looked at where he fell and started cheering, 'Holy shit, holy shit!'"
Right then, Stoner walked into the back room at the Victory Warehouse where we were having the interview and offered Khandaghabadi a blunt. After a few hits, Khandaghabadi continued.
"That's as real as it gets, if you ask me. Someone outside could be like, 'There's nobody there.' Tell that to the 200 people that were here, crammed into this tiny warehouse. Every single one of them will tell you Charlie Chaplin is real," he said. "And perception is reality."
Back in the ring at the Oakland Metro Operahouse, Kirsch explained to the fans that there would be a Booze vs. Blunts Tag Team Contest, with the Knights of the Roxbury fighting on behalf of booze and the Stoner Brothers defending the honor of blunts. The rules were standard for tag-team matches, except each team also had to finish its respective blunt or fifth of cheap vodka--only consuming when the other wrestlers were dazed on the mat. The crowd excitedly chanted "smoke that blunt!" or "drink that booze!" as each team partook of its vice of choice, but also got invested in a storyline about the belligerently hammered Anthony Butabi trying to get his older brother, Johnathan Butabi--who had been sober and gluten-free for six months--to fall off the wagon and become Johnny Drinko once again.
The Stoner Brothers are hulking figures in the ring but also incredible athletes. After a long, brutal battle, Scott-Rick Stoner put Anthony Butabi on his shoulder and Rick-Scott Stoner jumped from the top rope, hitting the dazed wrestler, and then held him down for a three-second pin. Though the match was obviously a farce, it was impossible to ignore the physical feat. It's truly a spectacle to watch a stoned 350-pound man fly through the air.
The last match was a 21-and-Over Royal Rumble. This, more than anything else that night, was about the wrestlers just entertaining themselves. The first four fighters in were Macho Taco, a guy in a banana suit, a hot dog, and Cereal Man. Link from Zelda and Ken from Street Fighter both joined the action, and there was even an impressive cameo by the invisible Charlie Chaplin. Later in the bout, wrestlers from some of the earlier fights, like the Stoner Brothers, the Chupacabra, and the Butabis, climbed through the ropes. The match ended when Jonathan Butabi finally fell off the wagon, got Popeye-like strength from the vodka, and threw the last two wrestlers from the ring. It was the kind of fairy-tale ending that is totally and completely Hoodslam. You'd never see it in the WWE.
Joseph Bien-Kahn is a freelance reporter, part-time café worker, and roving intern in San Francisco. He's had articles published in the Rumpus and the Believer, and writes a hip-hop column for BAMM.tv. He's also editor-in-chief of the literary mag OTHERWHERES. Follow him on Twitter.
Toby Silverman is fine-art photographer based in San Francisco. You can see more of his work here.