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Inside the pro wrestling ring: Up close at Hoodslam

Hoodslam is an underground pro wrestling event that takes place in Oakland.

Los Angeles Times social media editor Stacey Leasca stepped inside a Bay Area independent wrestling outfit to meet the participants behind the theatrical personas -- and to step into the ring and see what it takes to be a truly slammin’ wrestler.

Inside the Oakland Metro Opera House, the floors are sticky and the air is hazy with several kinds of smoke.

As if on cue, hundreds of people raise their middle fingers at a muscle-bound bro standing on stage in ripped jeans and an orange wig, while he pours a bottle of Jack down bystanders’ throats. Welcome to Hoodslam.

The first Friday of every month, the haggard venue is home to this amateur wrestling event that, after five years, is blowing up on the Oakland scene. It’s loose and wild, a homegrown shot of adrenaline that doesn’t just appeal to typical wrestling fans.

On a recent Friday show, the thousand-proud throng of screaming, middle-finger-throwing fans also included hipsters, the wrestlers’ moms, bikers and several guys in suits. They’re here to witness a spectacle of body slams, extreme attitude and outrageous behavior at an event that can only be described as performance-art athletics.

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Pro wrestling has been a part of American history for more than 150 years. In its earliest days, it was seen as a legitimate sport, albeit featured at carnivals. Wrestlers created not only their own culture, but also their own lingo.

The term “kayfabe,” for example, “refers to the portrayal of events within the industry as real,” according to ProWrestling.wikia.com, “In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera.”

It’s fake; so what?

These wrestlers are not trying to fool the audience into thinking it’s real; instead they focus on its entertainment value, and the audience is happily along for the ride.

“It’s an eclectic group from a lot of different backgrounds, from all walks of life,” Hoodslam impresario Sam Khandaghabadi said of the diverse wrestling roster he has built over the years to compete and perform at Hoodslam.

Khandaghabadi and Hoodslam were no overnight success. On his first try as ringleader, several of the acts he booked didn’t even bother to show. Only a handful of fans was there to see the very first matches.

“The people that were there were the people that really believed this idea of wrestling, comedy, adult-themed,” Khandaghabadi said.

Instead of high-profile wrestlers, it was mostly students who wanted time in the ring and friends Khandaghabadi had invited to join in. But over time, those in the wrestling community saw what Hoodslam really was: good, not-so-clean fun. It’s become a place where fans can let out their wild side, and wrestlers let out theirs.

Hoodslam isn’t the only independent wrestling group in the country, or the state, or even the Bay Area. That doesn’t matter to the wrestlers of Hoodslam. They don’t mind if you come watch them, or go watch the other guys. They’re going to perform anyway.

“It’s not for everyone,” Khandaghabadi said. “For the people it is, they really appreciate it.”

Although the characters and performance of Hoodslam may be for show, the body-punishing athletics couldn’t be more real.

Hoodslam wrestlers commit not only to the characters they portray but also to the physicality of their chosen performance art.

“I’ve seen plenty of MMA fighters, guys fresh out of military, think they will have no issue with this,” said Brittany Chenault, a.k.a. Brittany Wonder. “And then they get in there and try it and are throwing up in three minutes.”

One move that may cause those burly MMA wannabes to burn out in the ring is known as a “bump.” The bump is the most basic move in wrestling. It is used when a performer hits the mat or the ground after a fall during combat with an opponent. The performer tries to spread the impact of the move across as much of his body as possible.

Except it still hurts. A lot. There’s no faking that. I should know.

Into the Hoodslam ring

To test out the theory that wrestling can be both fake in its performance and real in its athletics, I decided to step into the ring and try it out for myself. I’m fit. I surf and hike and do power yoga. Could I handle a tough lesson in Hoodslam wrestling? Or would I count among the upchuck crowd?

To learn the ropes, I headed to the Victory Warehouse, the original home of Hoodslam. There I met up with twin brothers Derek and Dustin Mehl, otherwise known as the Stoner Brothers. Here’s why.

At Hoodslam’s ‘80s for the Ladies night, the hulking pair tossed their opponents onto the ground at fans’ feet. Then they paused to roll up and enjoy what appeared to be a joint. At the command of the muscle-bound announcer, fans began to chant what had become the slogan for Hoodslam: “This is real! This is real!”

When you meet the Mehl brothers the first thing that hits you is their size. Both are well over 6 feet tall, with large arms and thick beards and the somewhat unkempt appearance of stereotypical pro wrestlers.

Except there’s more to them. The Mehl brothers have long wrestled, but they’re also former special education teachers. Now what they teach is their pro wrestling craft at their school, Stoner University.

When I first entered the ring at Stoner U, I had a rush of enthusiastic adrenaline. It felt like I was about to go to tumbling class with my 10-year-old self. The floor of the ring had only the slightest give, which I immediately found alarming. As a former child gymnast, I was used to mats having about a 4-inch give with several inches of foam padding.

The Mehl brothers entered the ring with me. They instructed me to try out a simple front tumble. I did. It was silent. That’s great for gymnastics, horrible for wrestling.

The Mehl brothers told me the idea is to make the loudest noise possible. I tried again and again, trying to bump my upper back and shoulders on the mat and stopping my feet as I landed to increase the noise level. But I could not match the sound of their 6-foot frames hitting the mat.

The Mehl brothers then showed me how to do a handstand followed by a bump. They impressed upon me the importance of tucking my chin as I whipped forward from my headstand and landed on the mat with as much of my back’s surface area as possible. This time, I was a bit more successful at making a noise.

But, like the aforementioned MMA fighters, I was feeling wrestling’s effects in minutes. Finally the Mehls offered up lessons on the ropes. I did a few laps back and forth, bouncing off the ropes and propelling myself forward again and again.

We then tried to work the corners, attempting to bounce off the springs and produce another loud sound. The Mehls, of course, were experts; I, on the other hand, could not make a sound. It appeared my wrestling career was over before it even began.

Taking it on the chin for wrestling

The Mehls are happy wrestlers, but Derek Mehl said not everyone -- including some family members -- saw their chosen livelihood as a wise course. Many people, he said, “look down on us because of what we do. Because they think it’s childish. ‘Why you doing that? You guys aren’t kids anymore.’ ”

At Hoodslam, however, they are heroes. Fans adore them. Perhaps it’s because the participants in Hoodslam love what they do.

“I fell in love with wrestling at a very young age,” said wrestler Chenault while preparing for her time in the ring at a recent Hoodslam.

At 25, Chenault is what some may consider an old pro. She’s been making a living as a professional wrestler since the age of 15. It has been her escape, her form of self-expression and her place to find strength.

“Wrestling has changed me a lot,” Chenault said as she greeted eager fans and other wrestlers while helping another performer perfect his hair.

“I became very comfortable with me as a wrestler,” she said, “therefore I became very comfortable with me, myself.

“Now I’m not afraid of anything. Good luck ever trying to bring my self-esteem down.”

Chenault isn’t the only one who brings a little bit of herself into the ring. Performers said their in-ring personas were amped-up versions of themselves. It’s them -- “just turned up to 11,” Khandaghabadi said.

Khandaghabadi, as his nonwrestling persona, is an unassuming, soft-spoken 29-year-old of Persian descent. When he first entered the world of wrestling, promoters took notice of his look and ability to speak Farsi and, he said, pushed him to adopt the character DARK Sheik.

Although not thrilled to be what he considered a stereotype of his culture, eventually Khandaghabadi grew to like this post-9/11 character because it provided him a way to vent his feelings -- his anger over the treatment of Muslims and “how things were happening in the Middle East.”

He may have used DARK Sheik as an outlet, but with time he took control of the character, who not only “became a good guy” but also a fan favorite.

Hoodslam, in a nutshell

Before the fans arrived at 9 p.m. and paid $10 to join the Hoodslam brotherhood for one night -- before the wrestlers put on their costumes and cranked their personalities to 11 -- the muscled announcer explained Hoodslam:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a wrestling fan or not,” said A.J. Kirsh. “It doesn’t matter what you’re into, what you look like, your religious, sexual anything, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everybody has a good time at Hoodslam because everybody gets it .…

“Hoodslam is one hell of a ride.”

@sleasca


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