“There were three sisters, all of them wrestlers. Two sisters married brothers who were also wrestlers.”
Speaking is a man I’ll call Earl Elkin, 53, who, in the maturity of his life, found a career in the cattle yards of professional wrestling. Elkin does not wrestle or manage wrestlers or promote wrestling cards. What he, camcorder on shoulder, does is videotape female wrestlers. Said tapes are roughly edited, ads are placed in wrestling magazines, and, through the ancient auction of I Got/You Want, buyer and seller are brought into communion. I’ve asked Elkin to tell me about his first taping session.
“We had a little money problem. The girls wanted $100 each. And we had a problem with the ring ropes. They were wrestling in what was supposed to be a standard wrestling ring, but we didn’t have real ring ropes — what we had looked like limp clotheslines.
“The girls were veteran wrestlers. They had plenty of ability, but fake ropes made them look stupid. When one of them fell back, she pretended to fall against real ropes. Still, compared to what else was on the market, it was a very sellable tape.” A flick of memory lights Elkin’s face.
“Where did you find female wrestlers?”
“I went to one of the Tijuana wrestling schools. The guy who was the trainer had girls. I needed a quick tape, and it was easier to go that way.”
Elkin’s tapes, at least the ones I’ve seen, are minimalist reproductions of a professional wrestling match. Two women, clothed in high-topped boots and bathing suits (one-piece, two-piece, or bikini), grapple, grunt, moan, fall, slap canvas, endure body slams and hammerlocks, inflict forearm smashes, leg scissors, step-over toe holds, wrist locks, and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat.
There is no audience, no announcer, no color commentator, no past, present, or future. We don’t know if it’s day or night. We don’t know why these women are wrestling, where they’re wrestling, how they got there, where they’re going, who they are or claim to be. The relentless anonymity of the participants gives a pornographic feel to the tapes, which, in a perverse way, is reinforced by the absence of ordinary sexual acts.
“The first time I taped was bizarre. I bought a camcorder a day or so before I lined up wrestlers. A real good-looking girl, one of the wrestlers, got all upset because it was taking a long time to shoot. It took a long time to shoot because I was reading the instruction booklet. She said stuff like, ‘You brought me here to tape and you’re still learning how to use the camera?’ ” Elkin smiles. “But it worked out. I had no idea what I had until I took it home, and then I was amazed how bright the picture was and how good the quality was.”
Earl Elkin is tall, four inches over six feet, but several inches of that height are concealed by a pronounced slouch. He has a full head of thick brown hair that is swept back from his forehead. He is clean-shaven, has a wide nose, dull brown eyes that are normally half-closed, and thick lips that rarely touch. He is plump and soft around his face and torso. The first small ring of fat circles his neck.
We are seated in the living room of his four-bedroom, three-bathroom house located on a ridgetop across the gully from sdsu. One notices furniture. All the couches, chairs, lamps, and tables belong to another generation. It’s as if Elkin moved into his mother’s house and changed nothing, not a plate, towel, throw rug, bedspread, or curtain.
“When was this?” I’m referring to Elkin’s first wrestling tape.
“Nineteen eighty-eight. That was the year I found three girls who were the best athletes at a high school. Not going to say which one. They wanted to give wrestling a shot.”
“Why would teenage girls want to give wrestling a shot?” Teenage girls. Wrestling. Nineteen eighty-eight. Does not mix and match.
“I had gotten to know Mildred Burke. She was a women’s wrestling star in the ’40s and ’50s. She’d been on a lot of TV shows, including the Groucho Marx show. I played a tape of that for the girls. Plus, at the time, there was a movie out called All the Marbles with Peter Falk. There were a couple actresses playing pro wrestlers in the movie. I showed that to the girls and said, ‘After you graduate from high school, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to be in some college sport, maybe not. Maybe you won’t go to college. What are you going to do?’
“I took them to Tijuana.” Elkin laughs. His is not a heartless laugh or an ironic laugh or an empty laugh. Rather, it’s a soft, understated, aw-shucks laugh, which, when associated with teenage girls, Tijuana, and wrestling, seems wildly out of synch. “It was bizarre. One of the girls was the homecoming queen of her high school. Anyway, I took them down to the auditorium in Tijuana where Mexican pro wrestlers train.”
“Just a second. The girls were high school students in San Diego?”
“You took them to Tijuana?”
“I told them, ‘If you want to learn pro wrestling, there is no way to learn it here; there is nothing in San Diego.’ So I took them down to Tijuana and they saw 30 guys getting knocked around, falling down, getting back up. The girls were bug-eyed. They said, ‘We can’t do this! We’re just high school girls.’
“But the trainer was very good. They called him ‘Professor.’ The head instructor in Mexican wrestling schools is usually a top wrestler, usually a veteran, and usually past his peak. So Professor tells the girls, ‘A young woman is like a gentle flower with many petals. I’d never do anything to hurt you.’
“He got one of his woman wrestlers in the ring with a man. They started demonstrating moves. Within 40 minutes my girls were doing victory rolls and flying head scissors. They couldn’t wait to go back. They were so jazzed.”
“What’s a victory roll?”
“A victory roll is when you run up to your opponent, step on his knee, and wind up sitting on his shoulders. You both roll over and then you’ve got him pinned. A flying head scissors, same thing: you run up, step on his knee, and put a head scissors on him. In both cases the opponent does the work — he acts like you dragged him down, he does the roll. And then he’s flat on the mat, looking like he was taken down with your flying head scissors. The trick is to be athletic, acrobatic, and able to do handstands.
“The girls got it down in less than an hour. That’s when I called Mildred. I said, ‘I got these girls who know a few things already.’ So I drove them up to Encino and we built the group.”
Big jump over big puddle. “Girls and Tijuana. Mildred and Encino. What’s the connection?”
“I used to go to the Coliseum [15th and E Street], that cigar/popcorn–smelling place where they had boxing once a week and wrestling once or twice a week. I went, occasionally, from my early 20s on. Wrestling, for me, was never on the level of football or boxing. Still, I’ve watched a lot of old-time wrestlers. Technically, they weren’t great, athletic wrestlers, but they had their shtick. They had a way of getting people in the door.
“Anyway, I’d go to the Coliseum occasionally, and one night in ’83, I saw this woman, Mildred Burke. She was in her 70s. She was an old-time women’s pro wrestling champion [1936–1956]. She wrestled, a lot of times, in carnivals and for real. Sometimes if a woman opponent didn’t show up, she challenged men.
“Mildred was introduced to the crowd. It was like introducing Willie Mays to baseball fans, that’s what she meant to women’s pro wrestling. Later I went up to her and we talked. She had a ring in Encino and was filming women wrestlers. There weren’t vcrs or camcorders then. She made 8-millimeter and Super 8 millimeter films. She said she made more money in one year filming than she did during her entire career as a wrestler.”
“How?” Step right up. One peek for a dollar.
“She advertised in wrestling magazines. She told me she sold $200,000 worth of those stupid little 12-minute films. She filmed overweight Mexican women wrestlers,” Elkin chuckles, “not even beauties. Later she got some bikini girls, but in the beginning, she filmed whoever was available.”
“And you said to yourself, ‘Eureka, I’ve found a calling.’ ”
“I said, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ You never know, when you have a store [Elkin once owned a clothing store], what the hell is going to happen. You got to pay rent, you got to fill your store with merchandise, then hope people come in and buy. Mildred puts a little ad in a magazine, people send her money, she sends them film.” Elkin takes a moment to enjoy the transaction’s elegant simplicity.
“Okay. So after the Tijuana trip, you drove the high school girls to Mildred’s in Encino?”
“Yeah. Me and five girls.”
“To Mildred’s house? Five girls?”
“Mildred had a warehouse, but better than a warehouse — it was in a nice area of Encino, had a big parking lot and a high ceiling.”
“Do you remember what Mildred said when you arrived?” I’m ten steps behind his story.
“She was excited because these were good-looking girls and she saw they were athletic. But they weren’t trained. You know, like a head lock leads to a head scissors which leads to a toe hold. Veteran wrestlers know one hold automatically leads to the next. They can do it in their sleep.”
“Were the girls paid?” Still ten paces back.
“From me. Mildred didn’t pay much, even for seasoned pros. Mildred’s attitude is very common in wrestling. It’s ‘I trained you, you owe me something.’ ”
“And you figured there was money in it for you.”
“Sure. The point was for these girls to be trained and then be ‘my girls,’ because, by then, I knew about vcrs. I knew once they had some training, I could make 12-minute tapes of them. It would be easy because there was no sound. I could tell them what to do while I was shooting.”
“Sounds too good to last.”
“Lasted a year, maybe two. This is what happens, with women anyway: they get boyfriends, they get married, they go away to college, and pretty soon from this group of five girls…”
“Disloyalty is an ugly thing. How did it end?”
“Mildred had a girl working for her who was kind of sleazy. Her name was Beverley Cortez. Maybe, if a high roller had enough money she’d do it, maybe if she was jazzed on the guy and he had enough muscles, she’d do it. You know what I mean? Okay, Beverley began working for Mildred and brought in some of her friends.
“Beverley wasn’t a great wrestler, but she had a beach look, blond and tanned. Pretty soon guys were buying Beverley’s tapes rather than tapes of talented pro women wrestlers.
“Beverley had a me-first attitude, 100 percent me-first. Apparently, she found out she was pretty popular. So she got a sugar daddy to give her $50,000 or something like that. Then she went into Mildred’s film room and helped herself to whatever she wanted and started her own company. That pretty much ended that.”
Professional wrestling left San Diego on the same train that carried the hula hoop. However, due to a fortuitous roll of political/historical dice, we are left with alternatives.
I’d asked to be shown wrestling in Tijuana. Since our schedules failed to mesh, Elkin kindly arranged for John Roberts, his friend/associate/sidekick, to stand in. Roberts, Elkin said, knew Tijuana wrestlers and Tijuana wrestling schools.
Which brings us to 6:00 o’clock on a Sunday night. Roberts and I are riding in his swamp-brown-and-cream-colored 1979 Chevy conversion van, traveling south on I-5, at present passing Palm Avenue, the Imperial Beach exit. I shout over engine roar, “Are there wrestling shows in Tijuana every week?”
“Yeah, Fridays and Sundays.” Roberts has 51 hard years ground into his face. He’s small, five foot eight, with short — Marine Corps short — receding black hair. He wears glasses with big, big rims. One arm of his eyepiece is fastened to a brown plastic lens frame with what looks to be a Band-Aid. This fashion statement complements a layer of white stubble sprouting along his chin and underneath his nose. Roberts said he used to wrestle under the name Sheik Abdul. So far, everyone I’ve met in wrestling world has been leery of facts, starting with the year they were born, but I note Roberts has the remnants of an athlete’s barrel chest and talks how I imagine a wrestler would talk. Good enough for tonight.
“How many wrestling schools in Tijuana?”
“Three that I know of. They’re very good.”
Traffic is gloriously light, so light it feels like Super Bowl Sunday. “Is Tijuana wrestling considered minor or major league?”
“It’s like a farm club you see in baseball. When major-league wrestling comes to Tijuana they use a lot of guys out of the wrestling schools.”
We arrive at the border. Roberts picks the easternmost lane for entry. The rattling van shudder-stops, then eases forward behind four, three, now two cars. Roberts touches his forehead with the index finger of his right hand, then, likewise, touches his right shoulder, then his left shoulder, then quickly brings together both hands in prayer, then nods at a Mexican border guard and we are through.
In return for the tour I offer to host dinner. Roberts makes his way to Los Albanilon, a neighborhood restaurant located on the corner of Allende and Matamoros, five minutes from downtown.
The south side of Los Albanilon is open to the street and therefore open to smells of diesel, gasoline, and rubber. Roberts and I select a table near an interior wall and order a plateful of tacos. In one of those rare moments when the world fits together perfectly, I observe, behind partially drawn curtains, a black-haired boy huddled close to an ancient TV. He’s watching a Hulk Hogan movie.
Conversation begins with wrestling. Roberts asserts, “Vince McMahon Senior was the best wwf [World Wrestling Federation] in the world. He had everything, but he died and his son took over and destroyed it.”
“Hold it, Junior is the one who made real money. He took the wwf to civic arenas, got it on pay-per-view TV, cable TV, made it a brand name.”
Roberts shakes his head. “Vince McMahon Senior was the one who got all the good wrestlers. He traveled the world getting the best wrestlers, and then when he died, his son destroyed the wwf by letting those guys go.”
Dinner arrives on two diminutive green plastic plates. Each plate holds three tiny tacos and a lettuce salad. “Do you know any wrestlers who made it to the bigs?”
“Psychosis. He went Triple-A. He was invited to wrestle for the ecw [Extreme Championship Wrestling]. People in Philadelphia and the whole ecw community, even the promoter, were shocked. They’d never seen Mexican wrestling the way it was done that night. Rey Misterio Jr., Konnan, Psychosis, all those guys are Mexican wrestlers I know very well. They made it.”
I try a bite of lettuce salad. An additional bite consumes the offering. “How about the business end? Have you ever promoted a wrestling card?”
“Two years ago I did a show in Chula Vista right off Main Street. Okay, I didn’t sell out, but I drew more than the guy who was promoting boxing. I drew 165 people. I had a dang good show, a dang good show.”
“How many matches on your card?” I select the middle taco from my green plastic plate. Again, one bite consumes half.
“Five. All top names too. I didn’t have no first- or second-match sleepers. I had guys who wanted to work and wanted to wrestle.”
“Who was the headliner?”
“It was,” Roberts pauses a full five beats, “Apocalypse and Cyclops against, what’s-his-name, the Mexican kid,” three beats pass, “I forget.”
“What did you pay the top guy?”
“I paid him decent, I paid him more than…”
“A hundred bucks?”
“Naw, it averaged out to 80 bucks. I paid them decent. I didn’t disappoint them,” three beats, “there were some guys from L.A. who came down and did it for 40 bucks.”
“You can’t live on that. You can’t buy gas on that. Why do people do it, train that long and that hard for 40 bucks a match?”
“Guys do it because they don’t have anything else to do — they have free time, so they train. They don’t care.”
I lean back, peek into the adjoining room, observe Hulkster bitch-slapping a bearded villain. “There’s no pro wrestling in San Diego. How come?”
“San Diego can be a market if we get the right people to put it on. I could make it big. I can make wrestling big. We can knock the wwf out of town, knock the wcw [World Championship Wrestling] out of town. I can bring in big names. I just need a couple of sponsors, that’s all.
“I worked with this guy, he did a promotion a couple of years ago. He wants me to do a show, a big ‘Mexico versus U.S.A.’ show. It will work — nobody has ever done a show like that.”
Tonight’s main event is for the championship De Las Americas, Thunderbird of Tijuana versus the Imposter of the U.S.A. “Think back to when you were wrestling. How would Sheik Abdul describe pro wresting?”
“You do things you’re not supposed to do. When the commissioner comes in and says, ‘Don’t use no foreign objects,’ we did anyway and got suspended. Like, I’ve put a guy on the floor, in the ring, in his own puddle of blood. I got suspended and a $200 fine. The referee was supposed to stop it. He didn’t, and he got blackballed from wrestling.”
The Hulkster confronts a new villain, one of those oriental martial-arts guys. Hulkster hurls martial-arts guy through warehouse window. Martial-arts guy falls five stories, lands on asphalt parking lot, does not bounce. “What was your biggest payday?”
“Seven hundred dollars. That was a lot.”
“And how often did you wrestle?”
“You work four days a week. You start in San Diego, then go to L.A., and from L.A. you go to San Jose. Sacramento from San Jose. After Sacramento, that’s when everybody splits up. Some go up to Oregon, some go back home.”
“How did you work out the script?”
“It depends on the individual. I don’t have a script, I just wrestle.”
I look left, then right; yes, he’s talking to me. “John, you know if you’re going to win or lose before you get in the ring.”
“If the other guy’s going to win, he’s going to have to earn it.”
“We’re talking about wrestling?”
“Yeah. If you really look at it closely, if you took a videotape and you looked at it, in slow motion, you got to wonder if it’s…”
“Please, John, I’m an adult.”
“No, seriously. They choreograph — that’s the law on TV. But if you go to a real show you won’t see choreograph. You only see that on TV because that’s the law in the United States. They can’t bleed on TV — but they still do. I remember Hulk Hogan, when he started wrestling, he used to bleed all the time. Not anymore, not since this aids-shit thing. But we bleed in Mexico.”
Dinner ends with a whimper. We return to Roberts’s van and drive toward Teatro Zaragoza. As we near the venue, I notice wrestling posters hung on every other street pole. The posters picture two wrestlers in a deep crouch. Each man has his arms outstretched as if initiating a bear hug. The print says something about Luchamania. Roberts remarks, “That card is going to be a good one. Hair versus Hair.”
“Hair versus Hair is where you humiliate the other guy. You win and you cut off the other guy’s hair.”
Roberts parks next to a cement-block building, originally a movie theater, now a wrestling arena. We walk past a ticket booth toward a portly middle-aged man whom I take to be the manager. Insincerities are exchanged and we are waved into the lobby.
The lobby looks like a 1950s small-town movie-theater lobby, which, in fact, this was. Along the far wall is a refreshment stand. A menu, handwritten on cardboard, states, “Tortas 10 pesos, sandwich 10 pesos, sodas 8, nachos 12, cueritos 10.” Roberts introduces me to Stigma, a middleweight dressed, ankle to chest, in a black costume laced with red thunderbolts. The wrestler says, “I speak a little English.”
“How long have you been at it?”
“I started my career since I was 17 years old. I’ve had about 1000 matches, all over Mexico and the United States. I work for the wwo [World Wrestling Organization], and I work for all the organizations in Los Angeles, like the wpw [World Power Wrestling], a lot of those.”
Mr. Tempest and La Morgue join our circle. “What got you started in wrestling?”
Stigma replies, “In the beginning I saw it in movies, wrestling from Mexico City. So one day I decided I wanted to be in one of them and I began training. I’ve been a pro wrestler since I was 25.”
“Do you use a different style in America?”
“There is a different style in America. You can see the difference. In Mexico it’s really fast and really hard. In America it’s slow. Everything is heavyweights.”
The wrestlers’ dressing room must have been a rest room at one time, or, more precisely, an entry room to a rest room. It can be found opposite the refreshment stand, down a cement staircase. There is a spooky, catacomb/bunker feel to the space. The walls, floor, and ceiling are concrete. The door frames are concrete. There are no furnishings whatsoever; no rugs, chairs, benches, lockers, nothing but a bare lightbulb and 15 adrenaline-soaked men dressed in masks and wrestling costumes.
I mingle, chit, and chat. Everyone wants his picture taken. I take everyone’s picture. Roberts points out a man wearing a skeleton costume. (Neck-to-toe black suit with a human skeleton outlined in white; black boots with appropriate bones outlined in white; topped off by a black mask enhanced by two white tusks and three white horns.) I ask, “How many bouts have you had?”
“One hundred forty-five.” (This is being translated.)
“Is this a big match tonight or something you do every week?”
“It’s something we do every week, but it’s a big deal for us because we’re working. We train all the time. Every fight is great wrestling. We have to do our best every day. We have to prove ourselves to get better and better.”
I return to the lobby and enter the auditorium. Imagine a Main Street movie theater in Winona, Kansas, with all its rugs, curtains, and seats removed. Now, add 100 white plastic chairs.
Like our theater in Winona, this auditorium has a narrow stage. On it is an elderly Mexican man sitting behind a cafeteria table with a hammer and brass bell at his side. In front of the timekeeper is a wrestling ring built so its floor is flush to the small stage, jutting outwards from the stage toward the audience.
A young wrestler, perhaps 120 pounds, standing five foot six inches, dressed as a Halloween jack-o’-lantern, climbs into the ring. His first act is to quarrel with the referee. This is followed by an elaborate rooster-strut to the edge of the ring and an impassioned oration/harangue/rant/declaration of principles shrieked at the audience.
Meanwhile, his opponent, Mr. Red-White-and-Blue Mask, slinks into the ring and launches a sneak attack by way of a flying tackle. Jack-O’-Lantern counters by making a vertical jump of at least three feet, spinning 180 degrees, and kicking RWB Mask in the chest with both feet. RWB Mask falls to the canvas. Jack-O’-Lantern “helps” the dazed villain to his feet; then, placing one arm between his legs and the other over his shoulders, lifts the helpless gladiator high, drops him to the mat, looks to the referee, snarls, turns back to RWB Mask, and kicks him in the ribs. The audience expresses booming, thunderous, ear-splitting approval.
Incidentally, this is a family crowd. I count 65 customers, lots of moms and kids, fewer dads. Children settle on the edges of their chairs, clearly hypnotized. Their joyous shrieks reverberate off the walls and ceiling, bouncing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, thus transforming each eruption into one long cascading howl of delight.
Wrestlers enter the auditorium as they do on American cable TV. First, a supermasculine voice, overstuffed with wonderment and enthusiasm, introduces the wrestler while a DJ plays, at maximum volume, said wrestler’s entrance music. In the second bout (Jack-O’-Lantern won the first match), Mr. Thunder Mask is introduced by Michael Jackson singing “Billie Jean.” Thunder Mask prances down a theater aisle, slides under the lowest ring rope, high-steps around the ring, arms raised, fists clinched, swaggering like a German panzer commander on holiday in Poland.
The announcer yowls, a Mexican rap tune booms from auditorium speakers, and Mr. Skeleton sprints the length of the auditorium’s walkway, then dives, headfirst, into the ring. This match is an hour into the evening, and as you would expect, both wrestlers are bigger, quicker, and better buffed-out than their predecessors.
While Mr. Skeleton’s entrance was in progress, a slender mid-20s male, sitting in the first row, dressed as a civilian, but obviously a ringer, began hectoring Mr. Thunder Mask. Thunder Mask responds. We have back-and-forth. We have additional back-and-forth. Meanwhile, Mr. Skeleton paces the ring, eager for combat.
The bell sounds, Mr. Skeleton rushes forward, and, first move, throws Thunder Mask out of the ring. Golly, Thunder Mask lands at the feet of Mr. Ringer. Again, Ringer hectors the fallen superstar. Little by ever so little, Thunder Mask struggles to his feet and slowly climbs back into the ring, just in time to receive a vicious kick to his skull. As one, the audience realizes thunderous ecstasy.
We endure another slow-motion recovery while Thunder Mask zombie-staggers to his feet. But wait, the referee is lecturing Mr. Skeleton about the impropriety of using an opponent’s head as a clog-dancing stage. Look here! It may be that the ref has unintentionally given Thunder Mask time to recuperate!
Hang on, there’s more! Mr. Ringer sneaks off his chair, slithers into the ring, jumps on Mr. Thunder Mask’s shoulders, and pummels him with both fists. WHAT’S THIS? Halloween, who wrestled in an earlier match, flies into the ring and joins Mr. Skeleton and Mr. Ringer in kicking the now defenseless, crumpled-on-mat, last-gasping Mr. Thunder Mask. WOW! We have four participants and a blizzard of kicks, grunts, punches, slaps, climbing on ropes, diving off ropes, flips, back flips, arm drags, hand chops, and an outstanding clothesline. Mr. Thunder Mask wins.
This is complicated, skilled, athletic work, akin to ballet, except these men put in an extra 5000 hours lifting weights in addition to countless hours practicing moves. And it’s dangerous: wrestlers have died in the ring; every wrestler has been injured. Saying that, after two hours I’m bored to the bone. I find Roberts, who is sitting in the last row, next to the DJ, and announce, “I’m ready to go.”
Roberts replies, “I want to see who wins the belt.”
The main event of the evening is for a belt that represents an organization whose name is unknown to tens of millions on both sides of the border. Actually, Elkin told me it’s Roberts’s belt, picked up or made up somewhere along life’s rough trail, currently on loan to the good folks at Zaragoza.
“John, it’s wrestling, we know who wins.”
My first meeting with John Roberts occurred at Elkin’s rented warehouse in National City. The space, about the size of an insurance agent’s office, is located in a new office park just off National City Boulevard. The purpose of this depository is to accommodate Elkin’s wrestling ring.
The idea, Elkin told me, was to set up his own studio so he could videotape women wrestlers without the considerable hassle of finding and renting someone else’s ring. So far, his studio has been used by a half-dozen would-be/unknown male wrestlers as a dirt cheap–to–free training site.
One enters Elkin’s warehouse through an unmarked front door. A narrow corridor opens into an oblong chamber that has a wrestling ring placed against its far wall. The ring is standard-sized, built three feet off the cement floor, and has four posts with appropriate turnbuckles, three sets of ropes, and a thick canvas mat. Elsewhere, everywhere, are cardboard boxes, cardboard boxes, cardboard boxes, rags, plastic cups, folding tables, lamps — the collected dreck of one man’s fancy.
I am here to observe Ryan Colberg and Antonio Gomez train. I select a spot 15 feet back from the ring, in a small clearing free of storage boxes. John Roberts hovers a few feet behind me; Earl Elkin stands to my right. We watch the pair practice bumps, falls, slaps, leaps, pins, and drops. Very quickly, the room is filled with the smell of sweat and cries of “NO, NO, NO!” The cries are meant to express unbearable pain, shouted when either man is in the grips of a diabolical toe/leg/arm/neck hold.
The taller, younger wrestler is Ryan Colberg. He’s dressed in long black pants, boots, and a black T-shirt. Colberg is in his early 20s, six foot four, has short dark hair, and is clean-shaven. “A nice young man,” my mother would have said. He is apprentice to the older, far more experienced Tony Gomez.
Gomez looks like 15 years of six days a week in a gym. He looks like a pro wrestler. He has long black hair worn in a ponytail, black eyes, a Roman nose, constant smile, copper skin, and stands, maybe, five foot nine inches. But you don’t notice any of that. At first, all you see is layer upon layer upon layer of muscle. The man’s chest is three times normal size. Ditto neck, shoulders, legs, arms, wrists, and forearms. To put it simply, Gomez is huge.
The pair break from training, lean against black ring ropes, and suck air. I ask Colberg to explain the difference between American and Mexican wrestling.
“You can tune in wrestling on Mexican TV. They’ll go six-man tag, 48-minute match. It’s psychology. You don’t see psychology in the wwf anymore. In the wwf, it’s six minutes of work, and three minutes of that is entrance. After the wrestlers finally get in the ring, it’s spot, spot, spot, high spot, high spot, finisher, done, out. In Mexican wrestling, it’s three falls. First fall he’ll look like the master. He’ll put me away, put me in many holds, and I’ll be in pain and he’s breaking me. I’ll look like a retard. I’ll look like some green loser. Second fall comes, but I’ve been scouting him — I might know some things. You can really tell a story with three falls. That’s a lost art in American wrestling.”
“What is the hardest part about wrestling for you?”
“I still don’t bump good.” (I should explain that taking a bump is taking a fall, as in, Gargoyle the Magnificent lifts you over his head and slams you into the canvas. Taking a bump can also be taking a slap, punch, kick, gouge, being thrown out of the ring or struck by a chair or having Gargoyle stand on a corner turnbuckle and do a one-and-a-half gainer onto your chest. The idea in taking a bump is to make your opponent look good, which means making the bump look and sound real. The idea in giving a bump is to make the bump look and sound real while not injuring your opponent.)
Colberg continues, “Taking a bump is nothing you’d want to do on Sunday. The first day I was in a Tijuana wrestling school they told me to take a bump. I didn’t have any elbow pads. All the other guys were running around taking bumps. I ran four steps and jumped in the air. Fireworks were going off in my head about how great this was going to be, and then I hit that mat and it was so damn hard. I hit it so wrong. I was up in the air and reached for the ground with my elbows and quickly found the ground with my elbows. Seriously reconsidered my future in wrestling.”
Gomez adds, “We have different bumps and they hurt. They’re not fake, they hurt for real. I’ll be honest with you. I slapped some guy. He told me wrestling was fake. I said, ‘You think so? Okay, here it comes’ and I gave him a bump on the chest. His face got all twisted and purple. I said, ‘That’s right, it hurts.’ ”
Antonio Gomez is 33 years old and lives in Poway with his wife Cathleen and daughter Samantha. Follows is his story, as told to me during five hours of interviews conducted in Pepper Park, Poway, and National City.
“I was born in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico. I came to San Diego when I was five years old. I have two brothers and two sisters.
“I’ve wanted to be a wrestler ever since I was born. I saw Mexican wrestling on TV when I was a kid. I watched it every Saturday morning and Friday night. I loved it. I went crazy. The thrill, the fantasy, the sport. I’d say, ‘Wow, look at these guys! What is this? This is so cool! How do they do that? Look at that move! Oh, my God!’
“I told everybody, ‘I want to be a wrestler! I want to be a bad guy! I can do it.’ All my friends backed me up, ‘Yeah, you should. You can be a rudo.’ Rudo, that’s what they call the bad guy in Mexico.
“I got in the gym when I was 13 years old. I competed in professional bodybuilding. You have something in your head, ‘Wow, I have my degree. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a doctor. I have many choices that I can be.’ So you decide on one.
“Wrestling came to my head ever since I was a kid. To be a professional wrestler, you have to have some guts. Only the strongest survive. That’s for real. That’s the truth.
“My family was saying I should finish my school, because I dropped out of Sweetwater High School. They were telling me to go to school and get a career. A high school diploma and a college degree mean a lot in this life. I’m an immigrant — I immigrated to the United States of America. It’s a great country. My aunt told me, ‘Look, this is what’s going on, we want you to get a career.’ My sister, my brothers, my cousins, they’re all engineers or something.
“But, like I said, I dropped out of high school. And then, to make my living, I went looking for a job. I first started work at Sizzler, in the restaurant business. I started as a dishwasher. From there, I climbed the ladder like everybody else.
“I worked for the Ramada hotel. I worked for real nice places in La Jolla. I was a breakfast cook, a lunch cook, and then I became a dinner cook. I started making money and looked for an opportunity to get into a wrestling school. In San Diego, there are not a lot of wrestling schools.
“I was working in Pacific Beach and I met this lady. She’s a beautiful, nice woman. She was working at someplace up in Sorrento Valley. Computer business. She’s from New Hampshire. I fell in love with her and she became my girlfriend. I always told her, this [wrestling] is what I want to do. I kept working out in the gym, never missed even when I was sick.
“I told her, ‘I’m going to wrestle. This is my life. I want to do this.’ When you have something set up in your mind, if you believe in that, something very good will happen to you.
“She became my fiancée. We flew back to New Hampshire and got married. We went to Cancún for my honeymoon. It was pretty wonderful.
“Then she got a job with ibm back in White Plains, New York. I said, ‘Well, let’s go back.’ I did like New York a lot, it’s really nice, it’s a lot of money. People have attitude, big-time, but you see that everywhere, not just in New York. They have this saying, ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.’ And that is very true.
“I was a line supervisor in a restaurant, because I spoke both languages, English and Spanish. I was making hell of a lot of money. My wife asked me, ‘Do you still think about your wrestling?’ I said, ‘You know what? I will never give up. I got to do this.’
“One day my wife said, ‘I have an opportunity to go back to San Diego. Do you want to go? You could train in Tijuana for Mexican wrestling.’ I said, ‘That’s great.’ That was in the summer of 1997.
“As soon as I got back here, I saw an article about a wrestling training school in San Diego. I went over to check it out. It cost $3000. You had to pay $500 on the spot. One of the guys said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like it.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ll give it a shot.’ So I did. I paid $500 up front.
“When I first started training, I weighed 262 pounds. I was big. There was an African-American training with us, he was 390 pounds. I was the only one who could pick him up and slam him.
“I remember the day was Thursday and there was a guy in the gym named Rich Frisk. He’s well known in the Mexican wrestling style. He’s a trainer who used to be a referee in the nwa [National Wrestling Alliance]. He’s a real nice guy.
“I was getting trained three days a week only. Sometimes only two days a week. I was mad. For the amount of money I paid, for the little training I was getting, it wasn’t enough for me. I have to be trained for that amount of money.
“I think Frisk saw I was determined. I was taking bumps left and right and getting up while other people were complaining, ‘Oh, my back hurts. Oh, my neck.’ I kept going. Frisk said, ‘You didn’t complain at all, man.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I feel pain, but I keep it to myself.’
“Frisk got into a disagreement with the gym. He was going to train somewhere else and asked if I wanted to come along. He made an appointment with me to meet him in Chula Vista. We had a cup of coffee and a little chat. He kept telling me, ‘You’re a pro already! You’re intense. Your face, your body, that tells me you’re for real.’ This was 1998.
“Mr. Frisk taught me how to do bumps, how to land so I don’t get hurt, how to do flips in the air. Then he started teaching moves and collisions. We were training three or four days a week. He put the example for everybody else. We just watched him and did the same thing he was doing.
“He is an excellent trainer, but I don’t know, I guess he had personal problems. He told us he couldn’t continue with the school. But he’s a real nice man. I still talk to him.
“After that there was somebody else. One of Frisk’s friends came in from the L.A. circuit of professional wrestling. His name is Frankie D. This kid is a real determined kid. He does moves you’ve never seen before. He used to train in Tijuana with a big Mexican superstar by the name of Rey Misterio.
“Frankie D taught me a couple of moves, really good, devastating moves. I stand on top of the ropes, make a flip in the air, and land on my back. Ever since that happened, my back has hurt so bad, but I kept training. I have a big body — I can take big punishment. I know that.
“This went on through the summer of 1998. Then Mr. D got a job with the post office and said he would get back to us. I thought, ‘Man, where do I go from here?’ I got my broken heart. I was, ‘What should I do now?’
“I came home pretty upset and my wife said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I’ll be honest with you, I was with tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe this happened to me. She said, ‘You know what, why don’t we go to church tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’
“On Sunday morning we woke up and went to church. I prayed and prayed. The next Wednesday morning I talked to this guy, he used to train in Mexico. He wrestles on the American circuits now. He’s Mexican-American.
“He called me on the phone, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and stuff. I said, ‘Man, do you know the school closed?’ ‘Wow, what happened?’ I told him. He said, ‘Listen, are you interested in training for Mexican wrestling?’ I shouted, ‘What?’
“He said, ‘I know this guy who is a trainer in Tijuana. I’m not going to be able to make it tonight, but I’ll give you the address. Tell him I sent you.’
“So he gave me an address and I went over to Tijuana. I was so excited. I met everybody in the school. They were so nice. The professor said to me, ‘Let’s see what you got.’ So I got in the ring with one of his trainers. The guy told me, ‘Don’t worry. If you mess up, I’ll make you look good.’ They help you so much!
“I was leaving my house in Poway at 4:00, 4:30 in the afternoon. It’s an hour drive to Tijuana. I was going every single day. I’d get to the school, change clothes, start warming up, do sit-ups, bumps, go around the circle and do flips. You have to arm drag 15, 20 people. You have to do it to everybody. You get in the middle of the ring and a guy comes flying in from the corner. You have to flip in the air. One, two, three guys, one after another. It happens really fast.
“A guy gets on his knees. You have to run from the corner to him. He will push you up in the air and you land on your back. Trust me, it hurts. It hurts really bad. I was purple a couple times. They have a move where they throw people out of the ring. There is no rope to hold on to, you have to go out on your own. It’s scary.
“Mexican wrestlers are so intense. They’re real wrestlers. When I was training in America I never saw any of that. When you stepped into that school down there, they don’t teach you what they know right away. You have to climb the ladder.
“The first thing was bumps, how to take bumps, nothing but bumps. After that I had to learn how to get on the ropes, do flips in the air, land on my back inside the ring. You had to practice over, over, over, and over until you get it.
“If you mess up in a real match you can get hurt and there is no doubt about it. You can break your neck so easy, so easy. You see me doing a flip from the ring to the arena floor. That hurts. That’s really dangerous.
“When they see that you’re done with your bumps, your flips, your arm drags, and they see you’re still strong, they’ll teach you more. After two months they told me, ‘Here comes the submission holds.’ That was even more exciting for me. Those people are real technicians with submission holds. You can hurt somebody with a submission hold. You can damage somebody permanently, for real. There is no joke about it.
“I was at the school for six or seven months. Then I moved to another school in Tijuana. It’s always good to move from one place to another because you learn different stuff.
“After I was there for a while, my master went to wrestle in Mexico City. I gave him money to buy my wrestling equipment. He came back with a costume, mask, everything I needed. He said, ‘I think you’re ready.’ Then he gave me a name, Centurion. It was a really good name. People liked it.
“I was so excited. He paired me against a veteran so I’d have someone to direct me in case I forgot a move. The bout was in Tecate. I got $70. There were six matches on the card, 12 wrestlers. I was in the second match. The auditorium was small, but it was full, maybe 180 people.
“When I was dressing in the dressing room with the other guys, I was crying. It was, like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me!’ I was thinking, ‘I’m pursuing my dream. It’s happening to me!’ Somebody asked, ‘Are you okay? You’re going to do so good, man.’
“When they announced myself and played my song, it was really exciting. I went in the ring and warmed up. I was nervous. I had never been before a crowd where they can watch me perform. After the match, as soon as I got back to the dressing room, every single wrestler slapped me on the chest. It made me feel good. It was like, ‘Now you’re part of the team.’ ”
Earl Elkin and I are sitting in a corner booth at the Kopper Kettle in Lakeside, one of my favorite breakfast joints. This is a country restaurant that reeks of slab bacon and fried eggs, a place where the waitresses are middle-aged and take no guff from customers. The fare is a vegetarian’s nightmare. The count is big and the coffee strong. I order buttermilk pancakes and a side order of bacon. Elkin has a cheese omelet and whole wheat toast.
Earl Elkin was born in a relocation camp in Germany. His parents were Polish. The year was 1947. Luck — I suppose one could call it luck — came upon the Elkin family in the form of an American sponsor, a remote relative, “not even a cousin.” This fortuitous intervention allowed the Elkins to book passage, by boat and then by train, to San Diego.
Elkin Senior was a tailor and quickly found work at a men’s store in Coronado. The position proved temporary, a brief layover before opening his own shop on the corner of 41st and El Cajon Boulevard. Mr. Elkin, who was becoming increasingly prosperous, added a leather factory to his holdings during the 1970s.
The younger Elkin graduated from Crawford High School and enrolled into San Diego State. “I got a B.A. in speech, the equivalent of a B.A. in English, although I don’t have the paper, and, again, although I don’t have the paper, I have the equivalent of a master’s degree in English. I took a lot more units than I had to, but I didn’t do the project. That’s what stopped me. I’d take courses and before I could finish the last one that was required, the first one would expire and the game would start over again.
“But what are you going to do with a master’s degree in English anyway? Best you could do was be a teacher, and I was already making better money than that.”
Earl joined the family business. “I wasn’t involved until leather coats became a big deal. Then I got into it. Remember Wilson’s? [Wilson’s House of Suede.] Three brothers owned it. They made lousy TV commercials. They looked like the Three Stooges of the leather business. I figured if those guys could do it, and I had a B.A. in speech, I could make commercials too.
“In those days commercials were cheap. Channel 39 had just come on the air. We’re talking commercials that came on late, real late, 12:30 at night. Remember Mike Smith? He was Mr. Channel 39 from eight o’clock on.
“They had shows like The Virginian. Every night there was a block of three or four shows and Mike Smith would host in between programs. The most I was spending was $30 a commercial for a package deal of ten commercials. In those days one commercial would sell five to ten coats.
“We were doing pretty good. The error I made was not understanding that nothing stays the same. The sun keeps going up and down and there are changes. We couldn’t adjust to Korea and China. They were making leather coats in very complicated styles, so many stitches, and those poor people over there were working 12-hour shifts, being paid practically nothing. All that destroyed the market.
“The end came in ’87, ’88. That’s when the girls showed up in my store and I’d take them over to Tijuana and tape wrestling.”
I retrieve a five-inch piece of thick bacon from my plate and push it around a shallow pool of maple syrup. “Think about a wrestling match you taped and tell me about it.”
“First, the women get in the ring and say whether they’re a baby face [good guy/gal] or a heel [bad guy/gal], the bell rings, and they wrestle. The whole bout is about timing. I call it ‘wasting time.’ Wrestlers can fly around and do a real good, quick match with all the high points and you go, ‘Wow!’ They can do all that in two minutes: high points, somebody pins somebody, somebody does a submission hold, and it’s over.
“But what’s two minutes on an hour tape?” Elkin smiles. “So they’ve got to spend a lot of time on the mat, pounding the mat, grimacing like they’re locked in painful holds. It will take forever to get out of that hold. Then one will argue with the referee. She’ll throw the other girl out of the ring and keep pushing her back every time the poor woman tries to get back into the ring. Then she gets into another argument with the referee, who tells her, again, to quit doing what she was doing or he’s going to disqualify her. That’s the story line, if there is one.”
“Did you direct wrestlers?” Marge arrives with another round of coffee.
“Veterans know that stuff, but, yeah, if they missed a drop, and it was really bad, and they started laughing, I’d stop the camera and say, ‘Let’s go back and do it again.’ ”
“Did you tape in front of an audience?”
“When I taped in the Fifth Avenue Boxing Club I didn’t have a choice. I had all these stupid boxers hanging around. I’m trying to tape women wrestlers and I’d be recording the sound of heavy bags being hit and guys laughing and whistling and music blasting in the background. There was nothing I could do about it, because it was their time to train. I’d pull down the window curtains, but they didn’t go all the way down, so those morons went outside and laid down on the sidewalk to see what they could see. On Fifth Avenue,” Elkin laughs again, “with cars and people walking by.”
And yet, so many women complain about men. “You made a lot of tapes?”
“Easily 50 or 60 and there are remnants. If I put everything together, I’d probably have 80, maybe 100 tapes.”
“Let’s say I’ve sent $40 for your all-star women’s wrestling tape. How does the program begin? What would I see?” A view of earth from close orbit, the camera zooms down, down, down onto a dilapidated El Centro farmhouse. An elderly man and his wife, retired cantaloupe packers, relax on a front-porch swing. The woman stretches her arms, then brings forth a mighty after-dinner yawn. “I know, let’s kill the dog.”
Elkin’s cough drags me back to the Kopper Kettle. “The tape starts with names and copyrights. I will boast that with most of the other video companies, you’d buy an hour tape and see two wrestlers, maybe three. You’d see rotations, everybody wrestles everybody. I always tried to have six different wrestlers.
“That’s part of what you’re selling. The customer is thinking, ‘With this company I’m going to spend $49 and I’m only going to see two or three or four different people. With this guy, I’m going to spend $35 or $39 and I’m going to see six different wrestlers.’ ”
“Did you always tape women?”
“I’ve never sold straight men’s wrestling. I thought about it a couple of times.”
“What’s the attraction to the consumer? With a vcr you can rent movies, you can tape from your TV, you can…”
“But you couldn’t get girl-wrestling videos. Women’s wrestling, that was the deal.”
“And you make money from that?”
“Sixty thousand dollars the second year.”
Sixty grand, old-time camcorder, make-believe ropes, wrestlers in swimsuits, money orders mailed from Obscure, Nebraska. How could he miss? “So, you said, ‘Eureka! I’ve found a career.’ ”
“Yeah, but the wrestling magazine, even though it was good, had limited circulation. Eventually, the same old guys were seeing my ads. Their first question, after they’d bought from me, always was, ‘What do you got that’s new?’
“By the second year I realized what I was doing was not going to be enough. The real sickos,” Elkin pauses to enjoy the vision, “the 15 percent who buy everything you have, are your backbone and you’ve got to have something new for them. The guys who buy these things are anxious as hell. All they want to know is, ‘When am I going to get my tape?’ Now, if they see an ad and they’re living in St. Louis and they can order from a local address and not have to wait on the mail from California, they’ll do it.
“If I’d only known that the first year! By the second year, well, let me put it this way. Originally, I was Crest Video, that was my first company. My sister was living in Minnesota. I became Mars Video in Minnesota.” Elkin grins. “Now, all those guys living in the Midwest are saying to themselves, ‘I can’t believe somebody in the Midwest is doing this.’ These are the same guys who are buying from me, but they want to try something new, so they buy from Mars Video in Minnesota.”
“Yeah, but a different look, not the exact same tape.” Elkin hurries to the good part. “Okay, that started to work. So I have to go to Las Vegas. Las Vegas is hot, it’s desert, so Sahara Video. That was another post office box. Okay, that’s pretty good. Now I’m in L.A. all the time. Wilshire Boulevard is a nice area. So, Celebrity Video. Now I’ve got four, but what about San Diego? I’ve only got Crest Video. So I started Tiger Video in La Mesa. Then I went to Lemon Grove and made Cypress Video.
“Then in Coronado I did Palm Video, in La Jolla I was Starlite Video, and two or three times a week,” Elkin chortles, “I’d start in La Mesa,” chortle, “and drive to Spring Valley,” chortle, “and then Coronado,” chortle, “and there would be $200 here, $150 there, $175 there,” chortle, gurgle, chortle. “If I had done that the first year when I was the only one videotaping women’s wrestling, oh shit, then you’re talking $300,000 or $400,000.”
“How often did you tape?” How many hours are there in the day?
“When you have six or seven companies, you have to tape constantly. I was taping every week in Tijuana. I was taping at the Fifth Avenue Boxing Club two, three times a week.”
“Did you give your wrestlers names?”
“I never gave them names, except, maybe, in the beginning. Usually, I flew in professionals like Candy Devine and Bambi. They were known in wrestling magazines. I got them for relatively low money. Women were not being paid what top men were, except for one, Wendi Richter.
“But with other women veterans, who were not bad looking, with almost as much skill, the pay drop was huge. Wendi Richter was probably making $500,000 a year. Candy Devine, in a whole year, made maybe $25,000. She was doing matches in high schools for $40 and it cost her $15 to drive there and back.”
“What did you pay?” The phrase “next to nothing” comes to mind.
“I would tell them that if they stayed three or four days in San Diego and did this and that, they could expect to leave with this amount of money.”
“Next to nothing” stays in mind. “Devine flew in especially for you?”
“Sometimes yes, sometimes Candy told me she had matches in L.A. and I’d say, ‘Well, tell the promoter you hardly ever come to the West Coast and you want to stay over a couple of days and go to the beach. Have him book your tickets that way.’ And sometimes I would flat-out pay to bring her here.” Elkin frowns, looks down at his empty breakfast plate. “I was doing so good.”
“I assume everybody in wrestling heard about you?”
“They didn’t unless they happened to look at wrestling magazines. But what did happen, guys who were, I don’t know about X-rated, but who were making other types of videos, saw my magazine ads and thought, ‘God, he must be filthy rich — he’s got ads all over the place.’ They didn’t know the magazine was giving me a good deal for those ads because I was the original guy. Most of those guys had one-dimensional ideas about the business. They thought they could throw out pictures of girls in bikinis and they’d become millionaires.
“It does not work that way. It might be some guy’s fantasy to see a size 10 Charlie’s Angels kind of girl wrestling in a bikini. Another guy’s fantasy might be to see a six-foot, 200-pound woman crush some little guy.” Elkin makes a sweet chuckle.
“Just so I understand, there’s no porn in this, right?” A voice in my head kicks in. Gads, it’s a lawyer’s voice. “Objection, your honor. The witness has not defined what porn is. Is he talking about oral, genital, foot, hand, belly-button, human, animal, or alien pornography? And in each instance, what is the difference between sexual expression and pornography? Move to strike.” I slowly lift my cup, sip a mouthful of coffee. “Earl, let me back up. By porn, I mean everyday humping, bumping, grinding, licking, slurping, you know, the traditional, unimaginative stuff you see on TV during family hour.”
“Well, that’s up to the company. Competition causes people to think they’ve got to keep coming up with something the other guy doesn’t have. So pretty soon, guys with less or no scruples are doing topless tapes, they’re doing nudes, they’re doing things like having the girl win by,” our table becomes silent, “sitting on the other girl’s face. If some guy has a fetish for boots, they make sure girls in bikinis are wearing high-top boots. If a guy wants them wrestling in brown panties, he can get it with custom-made videos. Like anything else, competition causes weird things.
“A lot of these guys have their own fetish to begin with, and this is a business where the bikini girls — they’re not hookers, but they’ll wrestle guys for $100, $150. So guys were paying that and doing that and all of a sudden a light came on in their heads. They don’t have any character anyway — what do they care if people see pictures of them. So they started taping themselves wrestling women.”
“Makes you want to reach for a whiskey bottle.”
“There are, actually, guys buying tapes of me.” Elkin laughs, sort of. “I’m getting my head squeezed by this girl.”
“Don’t bother with ice, just bring me the bottle.”
“There’s this classic, notorious guy. He goes to all the bodybuilder shows. Bodybuilders, what do they win in a competition, a trophy? They can’t get a decent job. So this guy pays bodybuilders $300 and then makes tapes of them squeezing his head. A half hour of head scissors. He can’t get out of it. His veins are popping.” Elkin explodes in laughter, tears spill from his eyes. “And then he sells the tape!” Elkin is laughing so hard as to be helpless.
What else is there to say? Show business is my life. “You mentioned that $60,000 was your best year. Was that your only good year?”
“I had more than one, but then a couple things happened. Camcorders became popular and a lot cheaper. Every jerk with a camcorder got into the business. I don’t care how lousy he was, he still took away some of my business. The pie kept getting smaller. From being the only guy with ads in wrestling magazines, I became one of 3 or 4 and then one of 30 or 40.
“I was competing against independent-filmmaker types, who already owned all the fancy equipment and knew how to get model-type girls. One or two of their taping sessions cost what my budget was for a couple of years.
“The American Angels, a husband-and-wife movie-making team, shook up wrestling magazines for a year or two, but they vanished. That kept happening, people with more money than me getting into it. There was a guy who did oil wrestling. He called his videos Sunshine Girls. He didn’t last very long because he wanted huge profits and wanted them right now.”
I note that Marge has retreated to a counter seat and picked up People magazine. I take this as a hint. “Have you ever worked with anyone who made it to the big time?”
“Yeah. Three guys who worked for me — they just happened to be around. They were $50 event guys. Now they’re big shots in the wcw.”
“Konnan, they call him K-Dog. Rey Misterio Jr., he can fly. He can run to the corner post, grab the post with his hand, and do a 360. And Psychosis. His brother, Phobia…”
“Love the names.”
“These guys, they don’t call each other by their given names, Jose and Juan. When they talk to each other, it’s ‘Good morning, Psychosis,’ or ‘Psicodélico,’ or ‘El Monstruo,’ or ‘Phobia,’ whatever.”
“How did you run into them?” Marge puts down People, picks up the morning paper.
“When I taped pro wrestlers in Tijuana, I told the guy who was handling things for me that I needed a few men for a women-versus-men tape. He brought those guys. That was in the early ’90s. Misterio was a kid then. He’s still wrestling today. The wwf had a so-called lottery — the wrestler who picked the right ticket got to wrestle Ric Flair for the championship. Ric Flair picked Misterio’s name out of the hat. That’s who they wanted anyway. And then Rey actually beat Ric Flair, but Ric Flair did something at the end that got the referee confused and Flair won.”
“Well, yeah, Flair won, but the wwf has writers, the wcw has writers. Flair did whatever the story line told him to do.”
“Yeah, they got writers,” Elkin says, “they all do. But here’s my question, why is the story line so lousy when they got writers?”
“Why are most books bad? Why are most movies bad?” Elkin’s face is blank. “Many are called, few are chosen.” Nothing. “All right, how about this? Where stands San Diego in the world of professional wrestling?”
“To work in San Diego, wrestlers almost have to be friends with the audience. They need to sign autographs before the show, get to know the fans on a first-name basis. Asking a guy to spend 8 to 10 bucks — and if he brings his family, 35 to 50 bucks — is a lot of money for something he knows, in the back of his mind, is not real.
“Wrestling attracts a lot of nuts, guys who think they’re wrestlers, guys who think they’re promoters. I’ve been around two or three of these nuts. They spend their last penny booking a place and renting a ring, which costs $400 to $500 for the day. They get in a bunch of wrestlers, but they don’t know a thing about promoting. They wind up with a crowd of 5 people, or, if they get 50 people, 40 are related to the wrestlers and didn’t pay to get in. The ‘promoter’ loses his shirt but goes around telling everybody he’s a wrestling promoter.” Elkin sighs. “If you’re a wrestler booked into San Diego, you’re not being paid much. I would say anywhere from 20 to 80 bucks, more likely 20 to 30.”
Marge stands up from her stool, walks to the end of the counter, and begins refilling cream containers. She’s smiling. “Do wanna-be wrestlers have anything in common?”
“They were five years old and saw it on TV. Wrestling, back in the ’60s, maybe you didn’t see great physical performances, but it was a weekly show with characters. Good characters and bad characters, just like cops and robbers. You wanted to see Freddie Blassie get beat every week. It never happened. Why? Because they wanted you to come back next week — maybe he would get beat then. I compare wrestlers to rodeo riders. They’re willing to take the pain and accept low pay.”
I signal Marge for the check. “But wrestling is different than other sports. There is the fantasy of being in costume and having a stage persona.”
“Yes, and believe me, some of these wrestlers are weird. They’ll walk around talking about their matches like it was real. The match is long over and they’ll say, ‘That referee! I could have won.’ They knew what was going to happen an hour before the match started, yet they go around talking like that!”
Elkin and I walk outside and stroll along a gravel driveway toward my truck. My companion says, “There were three guys from a Sports Arena wwf show. They were going to train local wanna-bes. They wanted a lot of money, like $1500 down. A friend [John Roberts] comes running to me and says, ‘Hey, this big organization is starting. Maybe they’ll need a video guy.’ I said, ‘John, I got one camcorder. They don’t want me, they’ll want a three-camera system.’
“John’s determined and gets me to go. I see a dozen guys standing around, looking to be trained. None of them has the size to be a wrestler. Now these three guys — one was a wrestler who had a few matches — get in the middle of the ring and start lecturing these 12 so-called potential wrestlers.
“And they start talking about how these prospects need discipline. The prospects have to call these guys ‘Mister.’ Behind the ring is a little stairway that goes up to a room with a desk. That’s their office. Students need permission to go up and talk to any of the three guys. And each guy has a specific job, so whatever a student’s complaint is, the student will have to talk to the guy who’s in charge of that area. Everything will be first-class: ‘Even if we bring in Hulk Hogan, and he will come, he cannot make fun of you. Eventually, we’re going to have action figures and video games made. They’ll be in your likeness and you’ll get a percentage of that.’ They’re talking to kids who can’t do forward rolls.
“So within a couple weeks to a month, the guy who used to be a wrestler sees this has played out as far as it can go and steals the ring. Just steals it and takes off to Northern California.”
We board my big green Dodge truck. I turn over its big V-8 engine, glide down the driveway, make a right onto Woodside Avenue, wave good-bye to Marge, make another right, and ease onto Highway 67. “If I said, ‘All right, Earl, I’ve got money, go make a wrestling tape,’ what would you do?”
“I’d probably go to a Southern city like Atlanta or Memphis or Tampa, a place where there are five, six, seven women wrestlers. Then I’d rent a ring and buy a better camcorder.”
“How would you know where to find women wrestlers?”
“I’d have to get the number of the girl who trained the other girls, someone who’s considered a veteran by the other girls. She’s the one who would tell everybody: ‘This is on the level. You don’t have to worry about the guy being some weirdo. You don’t have to worry about being paid. I’ve worked with this guy before. He’ll pay you.’
“You want the place you’re going to use to look half decent. It’s probably going to cost $75 to $100 a day in rent. And then, if you want to have a real good reputation, you take those girls out to lunch every day and dinner every night. That way, the word really spreads. There are a lot of jerks — they’ll tape and then say, ‘You know what, it was so dark in there I haven’t got anything I can use. Can’t you take half?’ There are a lot of guys like that.”
I put foot to accelerator and move big green truck over to the passing lane. Funny, the engine seems to be making a lot of noise. “Will you have an audience?”
“Some of each. You look more legitimate with an audience, but then there’s this personal thing — a lot of guys love having two well-known pro wrestlers wrestling with nobody watching.”
“Just for them?”
“The wrestlers might as well say, ‘Hi, Jack, we’re doing this for you.’ ”
Have I ever changed the oil in this rig? “What’s the story line?”
“I take a look at them. The girl in charge will tell me who’s the best and who’s just starting. The pros will win their matches. It’s a no-no in wrestling — you don’t have a beginner beating a ten-year veteran. Besides, rookies don’t know enough and it looks stupid if they win.
“I’ll shoot, depending on their ability, stamina, all that stuff, three or four 10- to 12-minute matches. Matches can be two out of three falls. I like those, because you really want to stretch the time. You can have the camera running while they rest between falls. That gives you a couple minutes right there. Then you can have a tag team followed by a Battle Royal, where five of them are throwing each other out of the ring and the last two wrestle for the championship of the Battle Royal. That would fill an hour easily.”
Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever changed the oil. “Okay, you’re back in San Diego. I’m out $10,000. Now what happens?”
“Now you’ve got to find all kinds of ways to advertise. I’ve got my customer lists. There are some guys on there who will buy. You send a tape to a wrestling magazine. You call your wrestling organization, the uwa or whatever. Then the magazine will do a story on that for free, because they’re always looking for new information.
“Okay, now you’ve got a legitimate magazine and you didn’t spend anything for that three-page story. Sometimes the magazine will even print your address, you know: ‘You can see products of the uwa by writing to…’ The really top wrestling video productions contact Entertainment Tonight or one of those TV shows. I’ve seen that more than once. Usually, they’ll have very good-looking girls in the tape, you know, out-of-work actresses.”
I wonder if gas stations still do oil changes. “I’m still waiting for payback. Maybe we get a mention in a wrestling magazine, maybe we get orders from your old list, but where’s my $10,000?”
Three months after this conversation, I found the following message on my answering machine. “Hello, this is Earl Elkin. I was the one that had that wrestling ring in the warehouse in National City. The reason I called was, I applied for a job and I needed some references and I happened to have your card in my wallet. So I hope it’s okay — I wrote down your name. If they call you, if you would just do me a favor and tell them you knew me for a year or two or whatever. It would just help me. I didn’t have any other, too many other names to use at the time. I hope that’s okay. Thank you. Bye.”