Wrestle maniacs: Sacramento’s underground grapplers spill real blood for scripted glory

Janky local scene attracts everyday wage slaves who come alive in theater of pain

From left to right, Anthony “The Handsome Devil” Rivera, Virgil Flynn III and Joe Salopek, The Boogieman Joe DeSoul, are living the semi-pro wresting dream.

From left to right, Anthony “The Handsome Devil” Rivera, Virgil Flynn III and Joe Salopek, The Boogieman Joe DeSoul, are living the semi-pro wresting dream.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

Sir Samurai has decided to sacrifice his body to the wrestling gods.

It's an unseasonably chilly April afternoon inside a former Catholic school's gymnasium, where approximately 300 people are clamoring for the next insane thing to happen during Supreme Pro Wrestling's 17th anniversary show. The local wrestling outfit, which is run by Sir Samurai (a.k.a. Joshua Littell), hasn't disappointed. Now, during an appropriately advertised "extreme title match," two folding chairs rigged with crude stabbing instruments stand facing each other in the center of the ring. One has thumbtacks glued to its seat; the other has plastic Army men jutting from it.

Pretzeling his arms around Sir Samurai's upper thighs, Jeckles the Jester (Joseph Rodriguez) hoists Littell up by the waist and power-bombs him onto the metallic bed of thorns, eliciting both gasps and cheers from the crowd, a good portion of which consists of children.

Welcome to Sacramento’s independent wrestling circuit, where the stunts are bananas, the blood is real and the performers are wage slaves risking health and savings for an unlikely dream.

“Wrestling is where we get away from the crap of the real world,” explained Littel, a 44-year-old restaurant server who took over SPW in 2009.

Escape is one thing. Success is another. Many of the enthusiastic players in this unhinged performance-sport hold at least a shred of hope that they will make it to the center ring of professional wrestling. But the road to the big time of World Wrestling Entertainment is a tortuous one.

T’Lo, left, and TrueX attempt to pin Will Roberts.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

The WWE is a global media empire with its own cable channel and a penchant for cranking out crossover celebrities like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and John Cena. But it’s relatively sanitized compared to the semipro underground version, where men (and some women) with much less training attempt more dangerous feats.

Sacramento’s wrestle maniacs make the rounds in borrowed backyards, shared gyms and rented community halls. They work ordinary jobs at restaurants and warehouses, then spend the weekends punishing themselves for strangers’ amusement. The pay is lousy, the injuries are frequent and the odds of making it are steeper than those of pulling off a successful leapfrog body guillotine.

So why do they keep returning to the sweat- and-blood-dampened canvasses of the ring?

“Wrestling is something I’ve always loved and something I’ve been doing my whole life,” said Virgil Flynn III, one of Sacramento’s more successful wrestling products. The 31-year-old father of two performs under his given name and once auditioned for the WWE. But can he, Littell and their thrill-seeking brethren ever take Sacramento’s wrestling scene beyond a niche following?

They’ll succeed or bleed trying.

With thumbtacks still sticking out of his pulped back, Littell climbs out of the ring to make way for the next act. The real show is just starting.

School of really hard knocks

Standing in the center of a massive showroom in what used to be a used car dealership in south Sacramento, Flynn is teaching one of the most fundamental aspects of wrestling—throwing a convincing punch.

El Flaco Loco channels his inner luchador.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

Flynn’s pupil has been making the mistake of emulating what he sees on TV every week, jutting his fist out while stomping onto the mat to fake the sound of impact. But the phony blow isn’t what Flynn is looking for. The form is wrong. The drama is limp. The pain isn’t real.

And the pain has to be real.

“Turn the key on your punches,” Flynn said while demonstrating the action, twisting his wrist as he makes impact with another student’s stomach. The student feigns an exaggerated reaction, practicing what wrestlers call “selling,” making the exercise a two-way training session.

“Once you got it, pull it out,” Flynn continued, snapping his fist back to reload. “You want to portray real life, and that desperation of a fight.”

Flynn learned those lessons early.

Growing up in North Carolina, Flynn drove his mom crazy wrestling with his five brothers. But it wasn’t until the family moved to Sacramento in December 2001 that Flynn actually considered getting into the body-slamming act.

The way Flynn remembers it, his stepbrother was getting ready to perform in a play at the Colonial Theater the following spring when he saw something curious and gave Flynn a call.

Around 300 people, including a bunch of pumped-up kids, attended the Supreme Pro Wrestling 17th Anniversary Show in early spring.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

“He was like, ’There’s a couple of guys there training,’” Flynn recalled. “’You’re the biggest wrestling fan I fucking know. You need to go talk to these guys.’”

Flynn was only 16, but the phone call prompted him to briefly enroll in Supreme Pro Wrestling’s school. (This was back when SPW was still offering training classes.) Flynn quickly discovered he couldn’t afford the fees, but he didn’t want to quit altogether. So instead, he detoured into the dangerous underground circuit of backyard wrestling, where self-taught amateurs propel themselves at each other in makeshift rings and bash each other with all sorts of improvised weapons for the delight of small crowds and public access TV notoriety.

Flynn eventually left the backyards and completed SPW’s wrestling school, finding roster spots in midtier companies like Global Force Wrestling, acquired last month by Anthem Wrestling Exhibitions LLC, which also bought the WWE’s closest competitor, IMPACT Wrestling, in January.

So far, those boardroom machinations haven’t changed life on the ground for contract players like Flynn. “I don’t make a life-changing amount of money off this. It’s not one of those situations,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I am making enough to pay bills here and there.”

Other journeymen describe a similar hustle.

“When you start, it’s literally a hot dog and a handshake,” said The Big F’in Deal Karl Fredericks. “You lose money, for sure. It’s three days on the road and I make 60 bucks, so you do the math.”

Most of the people in the game hold down day jobs as regular people. The 26-year-old Fredericks works as a merchandiser at a Reno sporting goods store. Littell works at Applebee’s. Flynn is the operations manager of a recycling center, where he’s gotten two of his other wrestling buddies jobs.

JJ king knows most people think semipro wrestlers are nuts, and he’s OK with that.

Photo by gavin mcintyre

He also has an entrepreneurial spirit that has made it slightly easier to break even while fake-breaking bones.

Three nights a week, across the street from Luther Burbank High School, Flynn runs what’s thought to be the only wrestling school in Sacramento.

Lit up like a beacon on a boulevard specked with gas stations, fast-food restaurants and orange-glow street lamps, the defunct showroom looks like it was deserted in haste. Financing offices and desks cluttered with car brochures surround an enormous ring, where a red tarp covers about an inch of padding on top of dark, wooden planks. The ropes are especially unforgiving, made of metal cables wrapped in a stiff casing of plastic and tape, inspiring war stories from the participants hurled against them.

Flynn’s school has been in this space since June, though he’s planning to relocate to a space on Watt Avenue. For a nonrefundable deposit of $200 and then $100 a month, students learn the basics. Equal parts side job and all-consuming passion project, the school splits the showroom with a break-dancing crew that provides a vibrant hip-hop soundtrack for the night’s lessons.

As always, Flynn and his training partners—Joe Salopek, who wrestles as The Boogieman Joe DeSoul, and Anthony Rivera, a.k.a. The Handsome Devil—are preaching the importance of conditioning and safety. The three 31-year-olds diligently run their pupils through the same routines, again and again. Punch, bump, slam. Each action is broken down, each step repeated until the results are satisfactory.

“You want to keep [your opponent’s] head safe, but also their tailbone,” Rivera counseled as two students practiced dropping each other onto the mat. “You don’t want to slam somebody on their butt. All the pressure needs to happen on the upper back.”

Finally, the smallest one in Flynn’s class, a 16-year-old high school student named Dilpreet Aujla, is able to slam the largest man in the class with seeming ease. In reality, it’s a two-man effort, with the larger man whirling his body around as Aujla gracefully drops him onto his back, detonating a sound that drowns out the hip-hop beats.

Anthony Rivera, The Handsome Devil, lies on the floor during a match.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

Aujla, who wrestles under his given name like Flynn, is driven to each 8 p.m. class by his father.

“Like every parent, they worry about me getting hurt,” he said. “My mom even tells me to quit and pick up another sport. But she knows this is really what I want to do, so she still has my back. They’ve been to every one of my shows.”

Seeing stars

The earliest form of what is now known as professional wrestling—larger-than-life characters, scripted outcomes, real stunts—can be traced to the traveling carnivals at the turn of the 20th century, when a big-tent “champion” would challenge visiting locals to try to grapple him into submission. Somehow that got contorted over time to the massive pyrotechnic insanity that unfolded inside Golden 1 Center on May 1.

The arena was hosting WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw, each installment of which begins with a thunderous fireworks display that singes the front rows with sweltering heat.

In terms of making it, there’s the WWE and then there’s everything else.

For the vast majority of aspiring wrestlers, that means toiling in the underground hoping to get noticed. So nearly every day, after working his blue-collar job and doting on his wife and kids, the compact Flynn finds a ring to ply his chosen trade.

Though he has yet to appear on any Global Force Wrestling shows since the company’s merger, he expects to be featured on a pay-per-view special next month that consists of previously unaired footage from GFW’s Amped anthology series.

Joe Salopek, The Boogieman Joe DeSoul, makes his entrance.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

“I’m a wrestling whore,” he said. “I’ll wrestle for anybody that pays me.”

It’s an itinerant lifestyle, one that rarely leads to big show. But every once in a while, it does.

Chad Allegra joined the WWE last year. Performing under the drab stage name Karl Anderson, the 37-year-old North Carolina native wrestled his way up the ladder for 16 years, doing a couple of independent stints in Southern California, but spending most of that time building a rep as a tag-team specialist in Japan.

“It’s a privilege to be in the WWE and you’ve got to work very hard to be here,” the 6-foot, 215-pound Allegra said. “At the end of the day, you’re still doing the same things; it’s just on a bigger stage.”

And what a stage. The sold-out Raw show pumped up a crowd of thousands with what we think of as professional wrestling today—a soap opera on human growth hormones, with byzantine plotlines involving a multitude of spray-tanned rogues, all of which culminates with a thunderclap of gratuitous stunt violence inside a raised ring.

The night ended with an epic 30-minute match that pitted headliners The Miz, Finn B&#;aacute;lor and Seth Rollins in an every-man-for-himself bonanza. The acrobatic ballet of massive, bronzed men performing slams, kicks and suplexes provided an explosive example of what separates the WWE from the smaller operators.

But it’s not that much different, says Allegra, who, like Rollins, cut his teeth in the independent circuit.

Marcus “Flying Lion” Lewis looks into the future and sees a career in the WWE.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

“What we do is a very basic thing,” explained Allegra, who accompanied his partner to the ring that night, but didn’t perform himself. “There’s a good guy and a bad guy, and there’s a winner and a loser at the end.”

Behind the scenes, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

'Light at the end of the tunnel'

In a tiled gymnasium that typically hosts more quinceañeras than sporting events, a vastly different coming-of-age ceremony is taking place: Supreme Pro Wrestling is hosting its 17th anniversary extravaganza, a four-hour marathon for its most ardent fans—and the local wrestling league’s biggest event of the year.

This is the work of Littell, a self-described late bloomer who didn’t wrestle his first match until he was 30, but has since traveled the United States and Canada as Sir Samurai. “I didn’t think it was possible for a guy like me to become a professional wrestler so it wasn’t even something I fantasized about,” he said.

“We’re lucky,” Littell added. “We’re literally just a group of guys who work at Costco and Applebee’s and other places who dream of doing this—and here we are doing it.”

In the ensuing eight years since Littell took control of Supreme Pro Wrestling, his business has gone from drawing few paying customers, forcing him to pay wrestlers using his own rent money, to a break-even operation with 3,100 followers on Facebook. SPW no longer runs a wrestling school as it did in years past, but Littel keeps the monthly shows—a mix of old-school, hardcore and lucha libre influences—going, making just enough money to rent venues and make sure each wrestler gets his or, much less frequently, her $20 cut.

The paltry payout isn’t what draws guys like Rivera, DeSoul or Fredericks, who lives in Reno, back into the ring.

Rocketboy rocks out prior to his tag-team match.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

“This is my life. This is what I’m trying to do,” Fredericks said. “I am a wrestler. I am the BFD and this Karl Fredericks is everything I want to be.”

The local scene has shown tentative signs of expansion. Aside from Supreme Pro Wrestling, local shows are also put on by Total Wrestling Federation Inc., which started on a Tracy front lawn in 1998 before relocating to Sacramento two years later. And then there’s the Oakland-based wrestling outfit Hoodslam, which recently began dipping its more adult-oriented toe in Sacramento. (It most recently hosted a local show July 17 at District 30.)

That means there are more opportunities to showcase local talent, but can anyone reach the big time? The odds are tough, says WWE superstar Allegra.

“A lot of times, when you go to the local shows—and this isn’t a knock on anybody—a lot of guys aren’t in shape,” Allegra said. “Guys just don’t look like athletes or superstars, and just don’t carry themselves like the guys do on WWE.”

There’s some truth to that. The local performers come in all shapes and sizes. Many are older than 30 and not quite as veiny or orange as their varsity idols.

Littell has no delusions about reaching the big time. On the wrong side of 40 with more gray in his ponytail than brown, the single Sir Samurai is content to wait tables by day and spend his nights doing anything for a crowd-roar.

“On a good weekend, I come out ahead if I sold some shirts and some 8-by-10s, but I do it for love—for these experiences and stories,” Littell said. “I’m not doing it for money. I want to go to as many different places and wrestle as many different people as possible. Basically, I’m collecting experiences.”

The Black Cat Joey Smoak, left, drops Daniel Torch off a ladder during a tag-team match for the title during the Supreme Pro Wrestling 17th Anniversary Show Sunday, April 23.

Photo by Gavin McIntyre

He and Flynn have something in common there.

“I’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t think WWE is going to be a realistic option for me,” Flynn said matter-of-factly. “I’ve had my chance. If something happens, that’s good. But until then, I’m not going to sit around and hold my breath.”

In the meantime, guys like Flynn and Littell still want to put on one hell of a show.

Ladder-day saints

A few hours into the anniversary event, the stakes are high—literally. Two weathered championship belts hang on piping far above a wrestling ring in the middle of the gym. This is what’s called a “Tables, Ladders and Chairs” match, a gimmick copped straight from the big leagues.

The object is simple: First tag team to unlock the belts suspended over the ring wins the match. But the setup is preposterously complicated, with four tag-teams—eight wrestlers total—racing to retrieve one of two ladders stashed at opposite corners of the gymnasium while beating each other with folding chairs and plywood tables. (Fun fact: Audience members often bring their own tools of torture for the wrestlers to use, including fluorescent light bulbs and a spool of barbed wire so new it still has price tags on it.)

As sunlight pokes through open windows onto a capacity crowd dining on boiled hot dogs on cold buns, Flynn makes his entrance through a curtain to the tune of Nelly’s 2002 track “Pimp Juice.” Dressed in purple pants with yellow trim and a black shirt that reads, “I See You Hatin But It Ain’t Nothing to Me,” he somehow looks much larger than his humble stature. The polite, patient trainer is gone. Flynn, playing the “heel” (wrestling jargon for “villain”), goads the crowd and attacks his opponents like a wrecking ball from the sound of the first bell.

Early on in the chaotic (and theoretically scripted) melee, two combatants steal the crowd’s attention.

Daniel Torch—the other half of Flynn’s championship tag-team Salt N Pimpin—is clambering up one of the ladders, placed 20 feet from the ring directly under a basketball hoop, in an attempt to evade The Black Cat Joey Smoak, of The Rejects tag team. But Smoak is hot on his enemy’s trail. As Torch runs out of rungs to scale, the wrestler wraps his fingers around the nicked-up orange basketball rim above him.

Big mistake.

Smoak twists his body around and pokes his head between Torch’s legs, grabs him by the waist and chucks him onto a pile of waiting wrestlers positioned on the ground. Bodies spill everywhere. As Torch rolls around in both pretend and real agony, a crowd of nearly 300 loses its collective mind. Shouts of “Holy shit!” and “This is awesome!”—the wrestling equivalent of a standing ovation—pierce the roars.

Later, an aerial stunt goes semiwrong when one half of the famed Fatu Brothers, part of a wrestling dynasty with cousins in the WWE, injures himself landing on a plywood board outside the ring. Jacob Fatu had stretched Mustafa Saed on the board, coiled in barbed wire, and reentered the ring, where the big man took a running, front-flip leap over the ropes. As planned, Saed moved off the board at the last second and Jacob crashed down on his back. But the table didn’t break as planned and Jacob slid down a length of steel barbs.

But the Fatu Brothers would get their revenge.

Finally, after 10 more minutes of the wrestlers pounding each other in agonizing fashion, a ladder has been placed in center ring, directly under the black and silver belts suspended overhead. Flynn makes a valiant attempt to climb the ladder and claim the titles, only to be thwarted by Smoak, who tosses him to the mat. As the action spills outside the ring, Flynn, crumpled in a heap, climbs onto the corner post and somersaults off the buckle into a heap of bodies.

Seizing the moment, Jacob slides back into the ring and races up the ladder. Seeing this, Flynn springs into action, scrambling up the other side. But before he can get far, the other Fatu brother, Journey, slides underneath Flynn and clamps him onto his meaty shoulders for a backward Samoan drop from wrestling royalty. Journey then holds Flynn down as he stretches his arm in desperation, watching as Jacob unbuckles the belts and claims victory.

One day later, his tag-team duo having been deposed as the reigning champs, Flynn is still riding the adrenaline high.

“That night was about making sure when those guys grabbed those titles, that crowd went ape shit,” he reflected inside the showroom where he trains the next generation of hopefuls. “You’ve got to make your opponent look like King Kong—and that night they looked like King Kong.”

Then, with the break-dancing crew’s soundtrack bumping loudly in the background, Flynn reentered the ring to show his students how to fall down—and get back up again.