Son of Slam

"Mexico sucks!"

Under normal barroom conditions -- particularly in a southern-Arizona beer joint heavily populated with Hispanics -- them's fightin' words.

But as the anti-nationalist proclamation echoes through Tucson's Wildcat House on a recent Sunday afternoon, them's more like wrestlin' words.

"Butt-biting midgets," "masked Mexican wrestlers," "marauding mat maidens." For the next several hours, all will be grappling for God (and country) during an international grudge match held in a frat-rat watering hole near the University of Arizona.

There's the pint-size Superfly who calls himself L'il Nasty Boy, a cocky little fellow who favors spandex and garish fake furs and boasts that he was once on the Jerry Springer Show.

Imagine a Spanish-speaking Ethel Mertz in a homemade Flashdance outfit, and you have the formidable Lettie Rivera, a veteran in the autumn of her career who has taken more falls than she can remember.

And the guy with the shaved head who looks like Pugsley Addams' criminally insane older brother? He's known as Section 8 (military shorthand for mental case), a beefy racial baiter who brags he's "the most hated man in Mexico."

These are but a handful of the luminaries who make up the ironically named World Wrestling Association, a somewhat less-than-global pro wrestling federation whose stars rarely shine anywhere but in bouts staged in cities on both sides of the Arizona/Sonora border.

Bargain-basement costuming. Missed-by-a-mile wrestling moves. Groaner-quality agony that wouldn't cut the mustard in a driver's ed scare movie. Okay, so World Wrestling Federation on cable TV it ain't.

Which is fine by George Crawford, an ex-boxer turned gym owner who's been promoting his low-rent border bouts for the past several years. During that time, he's staged dozens of matches in Tucson, Douglas, Sierra Vista, Sells, on Indian reservations and in several towns on the southern side of the United States border.

"Small cities are my cup of tea," says Crawford, who draws most of his talent and audiences from southern Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. "They get no live entertainment, and I like to think I bring them a nice show."

Crawford may be one of the few people in his troupe to fess up that the "show" is exactly that -- a show.

Caught backstage (in reality, a partitioned-off dressing area that hides the performers from the crowded picnic tables surrounding the ring) before the match, one grappler gets downright indignant when it's suggested that his ring moves are premeditated -- even though he and another wrestler of his stature are having a spirited conversation about who's going to hit whom over the head with a crutch.

"Choreography?!" snorts the diminutive L'il Nasty Boy. "What's that? I've never heard the word! Choreo-what?"

Quickly changing the line of questioning, a visitor asks how much money someone like L'il Nasty Boy might earn for taking an unscripted crutch beating.

Idly polishing his Day-Glo shades, the sub-five-footer answers, "Not enough, baby, not enough. There's never enough money, right?"

Not for nothing did this show-biz savvy vet cool his boots in Jerry Springer's green room for an episode devoted to "Invasion of the Little People."

"I hate that phrase!" growls L'il Nasty Boy, unleashing a stream of invective at height-challenged actor Billy Barty, founder of the Little People of America support group.

"I was born a midget and I've been one ever since!" proclaims the man who is, by medical definition, quite clearly a dwarf, not a midget. "Call me what I am!"

Why argue the point: Midgets wrestle; dwarves get tossed.

Let the games begin!

If you've seen one of Crawford's Mexican mauler matches, you haven't seen them all. Still, you've come close.

Even within the wide-open scope of these rules-be-damned, anything-goes bouts, the casual observer quickly realizes that there are only so many wrestling moves under el sol -- and even the most energetic performer can quickly run through the entire repertoire.

Tossed against the ropes with even the slightest force, wrestlers invariably careen around the ring like a pinball traveling at warp speed. No match is ever complete without an attack-from-the-rear death dive from one of the support poles. And woe to the grappler who doesn't act as though he's been sideswiped by a Mack truck every time he hits the mat. Mere hair-pulling, meanwhile, merits histrionics worthy of the Spanish Inquisition, and if the action doesn't spill out of the ring at least once during each bout, someone's wrestling future is not long for this world. Like the man said, it's a nice show.

A crowd-pleasing Spanglish version of Mexico's famed luca libre ("free wrestling") matches, today's card looks like the Gong Show as it might have been staged by Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame and staffed by a team of fugitive carnies. One of the commentators who calls himself CBS (don't ask) resembles a young David Crosby in silver lamé. A slight, androgynous figure in a referee's shirt is identified as Mini Azteca -- or, some ringsiders wonder, is it Minnie Azteca? And over in the corner, Lettie Rivera and the unfortunately named Shitara, her vixenish archenemy, chatter away in Spanish like a couple of housewives over a clothesline.

Still, isn't a "nice" wrestling match a contradiction of terms?

According to Crawford, and no.

"I've really tried to clean it up," says the promoter, who says he depends heavily on the family trade to meet his nut. "When I took this over, everything was a lot rougher."

"Rough" seems to be a pretty charitable way to describe the border wrestling scene prior to Crawford's cleanup campaign. His predecessor, says Crawford, staged matches in feed lots and dog-racing parks, rarely in such relatively family-friendly arenas like today's barnlike beer 'n' burger palace. "He had guys wearing dresses, a guy in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, foul language, you name it," recalls Crawford, as he helps a wrestler wiggle into a face mask. "I'm trying to add professionalism.

"Today I want to draw the kids, too, so I got rid of all the swearing," continues Crawford, whose match pulls in 320 fans this day. "I'd like to take out the racial part, too, but this is the U.S.A. vs. Mexico. You've got to create some heat."

Even if it's refried heat, nobody seems to mind.

Or at least not much.

A collective groan goes up from one corner of the bar when several ringsiders spy a wrestler applying "blood" to his forehead before he's even entered the ring.

"This is goofy," says one spectator, a twentysomething rock concert tee-shirt peddler who came to the match with friends to pound down beers. "We've had better fights in the backyard when we were drunk. I'd rather be watching WWF, particularly for $11" -- the cost of Crawford's show.

Still, concedes the ringsider, "this beats staying home."

In fact, half the fun seems to be dissing the spectacle: When the announcer frantically notes that one of the wrestlers is "looking mighty frustrated," a teenager mutters, "How can he tell? The guy's wearing a mask, for chrissake."

Truth be told, Crawford's low-budget grapple-ganza looks an awful lot like the old TV wrestling matches of yore that filled the airwaves in the years long before pay-per-view glam slams, best-selling wrestling bios and a former ring star turned Minnesota governor.

Following in the time-worn body slams of such legendary pioneers as Gorgeous George (the peroxided pummeler who insisted that the ring be spritzed with perfume) or the Fabulous Moolah (the onetime ring fatale who now operates her own wrestling academy), Crawford's cadre of queso commandos might have stepped right out of a match on a 1960s UHF station.

Either that or a live-action cartoon show.

Seated perilously close to one side of the ring is a table of Latino youngsters who frequently find themselves in the thick of it. Judging from their shrieks of joy whenever the action spills out of the ring and onto their table (something that occurs with growing regularity throughout the bout), the kids are in hog heaven, rollicking in the redneck equivalent of a Chuck E. Cheese party.

In a card packed with exciting moments, several incidents get a particularly strong strangle hold on the audience's attention:

• After the announcer pleads with a battling Lettie Rivera and Shitara to kiss and make up, the women approach each other for what appears a conciliatory clinch. While the audience primes itself for a lesbian lip lock (some philistine in the crowd has been shouting "Eat her!" through the entire bout), Lettie blows the goodwill gesture to hell when she hauls off and smacks Shitara in the puss.

• A sweaty free-for-all that looks like Night of the Living Dead in ski masks culminates when practically everyone but the paying customers wind up in the ring.

• A ferocious face-off between ass-gnashing L'il Nasty Boy and fellow dwarf star "Pitbull" Patterson ("pound for pound, the strongest midget in the world") proves to be the biggest little crowd-pleaser on the card. Spilling out of the ring and onto several nearby tables, the Lilliputian lollapalooza ends in a torrent of broom-closet havoc; weapons include a trash can, a house-paint tray and the aforementioned crutch, now wielded with wild -- and unchoreographed -- abandon.

Thanks to the apocryphal story of Lana Turner's discovery while sipping a malt at Schwab's Drug Store, people who dreamed of a show-business career used to think the best way to catch Hollywood's eye was by sitting on a soda-fountain stool.

These days, however, popular wisdom is that you have a better shot at fame and fortune by being on the receiving end of a flying folding chair.

"I guess I'm just starved for attention," says Ron Sutherland III, who, under the name Section 8, has wrestled on the border circuit for more than a decade. In fact, it was Sutherland who originally organized the wrestling franchise that George Crawford now operates.

Like many facets of the pro wrestling world, exact details of Sutherland's career are hard to pin down. Claiming to be a 15-year veteran of the biz, the 31-year-old would have had to have begun grappling in high school to rack up such a lengthy résumé.

Still, Sutherland is considerably more candid about his profession than most of his colleagues, the majority of whom would like the world to believe they're full-time superstars. In reality, only one wrestler from the border circuit has moved up to the next tier -- a character who calls himself Ed "American" Knight landed a contract wrestling on weekends in Las Vegas.

The rest of Crawford's rotating cast of a dozen or so still bring home the majority of the bacon via conventional day jobs: Shitara is a beautician in a Mexican salon, L'il Nasty Boy is a welder and "Pitbull" Patterson is a salesman for a cell-phone company.

"You can make from $25 to $125 a match," says Sutherland, who, when he isn't mixing it up in his gringo loco persona, manages one of his family's Tucson paint stores. "But after 15 years of wrestling, your knees and back start to go. I'm not going to wreck my knees for $25."

Add a C note, however, and Sutherland quickly forgets his aches and pains. Not only that, he'll happily reel off a laundry list of additional injuries sustained in the pro-wrestling fringe.

"I've had jalapeños rubbed in my eyes, I've started two riots and I've had fans stab me twice," he says. "It just comes with the territory."

For all his alleged physical wear 'n' tear, Sutherland still yearns for the wild days before George Crawford took over the operation. "It was billed as 'The Most Extreme Show on the Planet,'" rhapsodizes Sutherland. "You should see these videotapes I'm getting ready to release for sale. There's like 'Fuck' every other word. That was some really brutal wrestling."

Toward the end of the three-hour Wildcat House card, there's reason to believe that the wrestlers had been less brutalized than the audience's collective credulity.

Before the match is even over, Shitara has already slipped out of her grappling Gorgon gear, and, now in street clothes, looks like an attractive young woman ready for a date.

Section 8, who'd been bleeding profusely from a head wound, now has not so much as a scratch.

And, while signing $5 color photocopies for the fans, arch rivals L'il Nasty Boy and "Pitbull" Patterson joke between themselves like the best of buds.

And as a couple of kids in masks chase each other around the bar, no one so much as raises an eyebrow (or a middle finger) when one of the wrestlers reminds them of an upcoming match at another Tucson bar. "I want to see the rest of you little burritos at Wong's!"

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: [email protected]

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Dewey Webb